Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old Christian Socialist and champion of the weak and dispossessed called Ken Leech

Kenneth, whose career as a cleric was one of action, characterised by tireless work on behalf of the poor, homeless, addicted and victims of either racism or religious hatred,who once said, with perfect understatement, that as a young man he "discovered the diversity of Anglo-Catholic tradition, the ‘gin-and-lace’ Catholicism, the precious and effete side of it. I met it in London, but it didn’t really impinge on me", has died at the age of 76.

What you possibly didn't know about Ken, that he :

* was born in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Lancashire, in the summer of 1939, shortly before the outbreak of Second World War into a secular, working-class family and having passed the 11+ exam, attended Hyde Grammar School, near Manchester.

* recalled "as a teenager, I attended a high Anglo-Catholic parish in Hyde", Holy Innocents' Fallowfield, where he "already identified with Anglo-Catholic tradition" and at 17 was profoundly affected by a BBC Radio Third Programme broadcast by then 'Christian' philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre, entitled 'A society without metaphysics' based on the proposition that 'the creed of the English is that there is no God and that it is wise to pray to him from time to time' and concluding that 'the curious flavour that a combination of liberal morality and metaphysical meaningless gives to life its characteristic flavour of our time.'

* in 1957, as a History undergraduate and 'Sambrook Scholar' at King’s College, London, had his first experience of living in a multiracial community in his student digs in the East End of London : "It was the first place I lived in when I was 18, in Cable Street, where my next door neighbour was an Ethiopian woman married to a Somali and she lived around the back of the Nigerian café, on the other side of us was a Maltese family, who ran the Liberal Party of Malta and it was surrounded by Somalis and Gambians and people from what later became Bangladesh and people from Caribbean."

* arriving at the time of the Notting Hill Riots, later acknowledged his arrival in Brick Lane was a 'real turning point' in his life and 'The East End seemed full of left-wing Christians and co-operation between Christians and Marxists was common. I got to know some of the old Communist councillors, all of them atheists, but all of them having a long history of cooperation with socialist Christians with whom they had a lot in common. The East End has shaped me more than any place' and spent much of his extra-curricular time there, after 1958 'involved with fighting fascism, working for decent housing, trying to create communities of resistance and solidarity.'

* found himself in an area with a cosmopolitan mix and a constantly changing, floating population with seaman of many nationalities, long-distance lorry drivers, wayfarers and a 'very large number of people who are physically or mentally unsettled: homeless drifting people, social outcasts, children of unhappy marriages' and with widespread prostitution, found that : 'vice racketeering' went 'hand in hand with violence and street and café fights are common. Certain parts of the area have thus become centres for criminal elements.'

* taught evening English classes for male Somalis and "became involved with that Franciscan community and also with a ministry that Father Joe Williamson was running for prostitutes in the area”, then after graduating in 1960, left the East End and went to Trinity College, Oxford to study theology.

* after starting theological studies at St Stephen's House, Oxford at the age of 24 in 1963, drew on his experience of living four years in Brick Lane and presented his paper, 'A Christian Mission for West Stepney' to the Bishops of London and Stepney, in the hope of being returned to the area as curate after his ordination the following year and outlined alternatives in the : 'need of special pastoral work in helping integrate coloured people into the life of the area' or work in the cafés in Cable Street which 'formed an underworld of drifting people and this underworld will remain in the Whitechapel area and must be penetrated for Christ' or ecumenical co-operation where 'Christians might work together with Jewish groups to tackle the homeless problem' or a 'special mission' to reintegrate criminals which 'some might claim calls more for social workers than for priests, but this would be a dangerous half-truth. What is needed is a combination of spiritual and social work in a ministry'.

* found that, despite 'asking the Bishops to consider if they might allow me, after ordination in 1964, to be allocated special pastoral work on the lines indicated above', was instead sent to Hoxton in the Borough of Hackney, North London where he 'really got a shock' because 'you never saw a black priest and you never saw any Jews. It was entirely white working class and when Oswald Mosley stood as Parliamentary candidate for Shoreditch in 1965, he got a lot of votes, and lot of the people voted even from my congregation.'

* in Hoxton 'first became aware of the fact that there is a lot of racism within the white working class', but also found that the parish 'relied on a model of the church as the centre of the community, which was becoming unrealistic by the later 1960s. Nowadays, those sort of priests who wear birettas and cassocks in the streets seem like leftovers from the past, joke figures almost, though many are good and holy men. But in the 1960s that was still a vibrant tradition.'

* having found, at his time in Brick Lane, drug-abuse to be a serious new problem, particularly amphetamines, founded the 'Soho Drugs Group' in 1964, and forged close links with doctors working in the San Francisco counter-culture scene and later recalled : "Doctors at the Haight-Ashbury Medical Centre warned that following the US example of prohibition would lead to disaster in England. And things began to go wrong under the influence of the late Dr Philip Connell, of the Maudsley Hospital, who in the late 1960s advised the Ministry of Health to cut down on heroin prescribing after a number of high-profile cases involving 'junkie doctors.'"

* in 1967, at the age of 28 started work as an assistant priest at St Anne’s Church in Soho in London's West End and two years later, during a 4am police raid on the 'Limbo Club' in Soho where, in cassock and dog collar, he was outside the back entrance as part of his 'loitering ministry' : "loitering - being around, staying around, becoming a trusted person" which included helping kids who'd taken drug overdoses and caring for the hungry and homeless and was accompanied by Police Inspector, Elizabeth Reid, on a "juvenile roundup" trawl for amphetamine-fuelled youngsters.

* later recalled : "Elizabeth wondered what to do about these homeless kids. She said: 'Somebody ought to open a centre for people in trouble late at night '" and inspired by her suggestion, met Anton Wallich-Clifford (later founder of the Simon Community) "in a Soho pub and asked him how much money he had, and he replied that he was £8,000 in the red. I had £30 in the bank, so I said : "we better do something" " and so opened an emergency night shelter in a basement in Dean Street, Soho and recalled : "The first night nobody turned up and we thought we had made a mistake, but within a month we had 600 through the doors; 1,003 in the first four months and 5,000 in a year."

* attracted volunteers from a cast of probation officers, Roman Catholic sisters and novices and chose the name 'Centrepoint' as a direct challenge to the "affront to the homeless" in the shape of Richard Seifert's infamous tower block, 'Centre Point', the 385-ft tower at the south end of Tottenham Court Road which stood empty for years, making millions for a property developer because a quirk in the law meant it was better to leave it empty than to tie it down to a particular rental review period.

* in 1973 published 'Youthquake', an attempt to acquaint his Church with the new challenges of ministry which the 1960s had brought, in which he dealt with the drug culture, gurus and meditation, psychedelia and the underground in its many forms and attempts to relate the
different movements in the contemporary youth scene to the Christian spiritual tradition.

* moved to St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green in 1974 and co-founded the 'Jubilee Group' with  other priests interested in Anglo-Catholic social thought and with "a sense that the politically radical side of the tradition was in danger of being forgotten" in a group which "never defined its socialism. Some were Marxists; many belonged to the Labour Party. So there was no party line" which, when it drew up a manifesto, sought the help of a young graduate student, Rowan Williams, but didn't use his contribution because "it was too triumphalist. But we met soon after that, and he became involved over the next ten years or so. I saw him as part of a new generation of Anglo-Catholic theology."

* published 'Soul Friend' in 1977 and saw it which quickly became a classic, contemporary exploration of the Christian practice of spiritual direction which explored its history, both Protestant and Catholic, from the earliest Church through the twentieth century and examined the influence of the drug culture of the 1960's, Eastern influences on prayer and spiritual practice and the Pentecostal Movement.

* moved back into the Brick Lane area, now the centre largest Bengali community outside Bangladesh and saw the revival of Neo- Nazism, emergence of skinhead gangs and 'Paki-bashing' and in 1978, the murder of Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali, trigger a massive wave of protest and in June a mob of 150 youths rampage though the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and concrete damaging shops and cars and shouting "Kill the black bastards."

* in 1980 published 'The Introduction to Brick Lane 1978' which set the violence and unrest 'within the context of the anti-racist struggle in Britain' and stated : 'The battle against racism and fascism cannot be won by outsiders who march into and area, chant slogans and then march out again : it can only be won by the most dedicated, rooted and persistent commitment to undermine and destroy the injustice and neglect on which such movements thrive' and was critical of 1979 Commission for Racial Equality Report, 'Brick Lane and Beyond : An Inquiry into racial strife and violence on Tower Hamlets', stating that it was 'neither careful nor an academic analysis, but a careless, superficial and shoddy production, representing a wasted opportunity and contributing nothing to understanding.'

* concluded that 'the emergence of a new Bengali radicalism is the most encouraging and most hopeful aspect of the whole period. The radicalisation of Asian youth in Brick Lane is part of a nation wide process' with saw 'close parallels between this and radicalisation of the Jews at the turn of the century. The ghetto has produced not despair and resignation but anger and organised revolt. It is this new spirit that the hope for the future lies.'

* in 1981 in 'The Social God' stressed the essential unity of doctrine and action, of prayer and politics, : 'Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum. Today’s context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, and human loneliness ...The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.' 

* in his 1982 article entitled 'The Church in a Plural Society', stated that : 'As alienation increasingly separates society in the UK, as unemployment gets worse, as poverty claims more and more people here, as violence of the rich and powerful against the poor erupts more viciously as it will in the UK, the theology of liberation will no longer be a panacea for Latina American ills. It will, I believe, become a divine imperative which challenges Christians to take up the cause of the oppressed here in our very midst'.

* at the age of 48 in 1987, became and remained for four years, Director of the 'Runnymede Trust' think-tank promoting ethnicity and cultural diversity and using his designation published 'The Birth of a Monster : Growth of Racist Legislation since the 1950's' and also served as the 'Race Relations Officer' for the 'General Synod Board of Social Responsibility'.

* continued  to advocate the disestablishment of the Church of England and the stifling spirit of compromise he associated with its establishment and in writing in the Guardian in 1993, called the Bishops 'state nominees' who “Charming and pleasant as they are, they bear the mark of the beast”, knew that he was in no danger of promotion within the Church even when New Labour briefly made Christian Socialism seem fashionable and was critical of  Prime Minister, Tony Blair : "There is overwhelming evidence he is a Christian, but no evidence he is a Socialist."

* in 2009, at  the age of 70 and on the 40th Anniversary of 'Centrepoint', reflected that it had helped 3,000 homeless 16 to 25-year-olds and provided far more than a bed for the 825 young people it worked with across London and the North East of England each day and told the BBC "It's so different to how it was. We were so primitive. We were just scraping the surface, but this place is rather like a hotel. I think it's very good and it's on such a big scale" 
but at the same time also said that he was "proud, but also depressed it's still needed."

* in 2014 attended a special service in Manchester to mark the 50th anniversary of his ordination in which the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, said, “Father Kenneth Leech has offered to the Church, through 50 years of ordained ministry, an unparalleled combination of skills. He is both one of the deepest spiritual writers of his era and arguably its most effective exponent of Christian social intervention and political critique. In honouring his contribution my hope is that we pledge ourselves to continue to take it forward. His example and thinking can inspire us in the opportunities before us today, all the way from setting up credit unions to supporting the emergence of new monastic communities in our cities.” 

* was 35 years old, when he had written, forty years before :
'If spirituality and prophecy are not held together, both  must decay. There must be contemplation and resistance, holiness and justice, prayer and politics. For our vision is of a God whose holiness fills heaven and earth, and who has called all people into freedom, justice and peace within his new order.'


  1. Revd Ian P Hamilton.16 September 2015 at 14:15

    Than you for reminding of much of his writing. I visited Ken in mid-August just before my move to Wigan. We first met in '85 when we shared mutual stories about Cable St where I had my ministry. Beloved man.

  2. Thank you for this set of reflections. It's lovely. Fr Leech, RIP.