Farewell to the days of birettas and cassocks

by
02 November 2006

AFTER 40 years of innovative urban ministry, the Revd Dr Ken Leech is leaving the East End of London. In that time, the East End has seen as many changes as the Church he has served.

How did it all begin? “I first came to London in 1958, as a student. I lived in Cable Street, in the heart of London’s old docks. There was a Franciscan community there, which had been set up in a former brothel. Cable Street was the red light district of London then. And it was surrounded by the most notorious slum area in London; its destruction in the late 1960s marked the end of an era.

“I became involved with that Franciscan community, and also with a ministry that Fr Joe Williamson was running for prostitutes in the area.”

Did he already have an interest in Anglo-Catholic Socialism when he arrived in London? “Yes. As a teenager, I attended a high Anglo-Catholic parish in Hyde, near Manchester. So
I already identified with Anglo-Catholic tradition, but I hadn’t yet discovered what a diverse tradition it was. I didn’t yet know about ‘gin-and-lace’ Catholicism, the precious and effete side of it. I met it in London, but it didn’t really impinge on me.

“I was influenced by people like Stanley Evans, Gresham Kirby, John Groser — they were old-style Christian Socialists — Communists some of them. They certainly had no time for preciousness.”

He was ordained in 1965: what was his first parish like? “I first served in a very papalist parish in Hoxton. It had the Roman mass, and multiple crossings, in direct imitation of Rome. And then all this was banned by the Second Vatican Council, and I had to unlearn it.

“The parish was like a village parish really, but within London. Everyone seemed to be related to each other. And the Vicar, Kenneth Loveless, was a real character: he modelled himself on the slum priest Fr Dolling. He was like an authoritarian father of the community — he even turned away people who lived outside the parish boundaries, and told them to attend their local church. He was much loved locally. When he died, his coffin was carried through the streets and everyone wept. It was quite bizarre, looking back: another era really.

“When I moved to a parish in Soho in 1967, I came to feel it was all a bit unreal, that tradition. It 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.”

IN HIS Soho parish, drug-abuse was a serious new problem, particularly amphetamines. He set up the Soho Drugs Group and subsequently Centrepoint, which not only provided for the needs of young homeless people, but sought to relate their plight to wider social issues. His book Youthquake was an attempt to acquaint his Church with the new challenges of ministry which the 1960s had brought.

In 1974, he moved to St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green. This was a natural home for Ken Leech, for it was here that Stewart Headlam had founded the Christian-Socialist Guild of St Matthew a century before. He now co-founded the Jubilee Group with a few other priests interested in Anglo-Catholic social thought. When the group was drawing up a manifesto, one of the group, who was a chaplain at an Oxford college, sought the help of a graduate student he knew. It was Rowan Williams.

“We didn’t use what Rowan wrote — 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.

“What brought the group together was a sense that the politically radical side of the tradition was in danger of being forgotten. But the group never defined its socialism. Some were Marxists; many belonged to the Labour Party. There was David Nicholls, who was really an old-style guild socialist, opposed to state socialism. So there was no party line.

“At first, the group was very confident that the Anglo-Catholic tradition was intrinsically radical in its politics, owing to its focus on the incarnation and the Kingdom of God. We gradually admitted that this was only one aspect of the tradition, and probably not the dominant aspect.

“At the time it seemed possible to be both traditional in one’s theology and radical in one’s politics; lots of people who influenced me were like that. But over time I’ve become much more wary of some of the traditionalist strands in Anglo-Catholicism, which I think belong to an early stage of the movement.

“The key question is whether you see the Church as the most important thing in Christian faith, or the Kingdom of God. Stanley Evans was arguing in the 1950s that the really important division in the Christian world was between those who thought that the Kingdom of God involved the transformation of this world in some sense, and those who didn’t. Today, I think this divide cuts right across the denominations.

“The so-called radicalisation that happened to the Church of England in the 1980s is a bit of an overstatement. I think the Government was so right- wing that the Church seemed more radical just by staying still. Today, it’s harder to locate, and some of the most radical Christians are of other traditions, like Baptists and Mennonites.”

His ministry included vocal opposition to the far-right groups that lurked in London’s deprived areas. He had already encountered the British Union of Fascists when Mosley stood as a parliamentary candidate in Hoxton. A decade later, the National Front was a constant menace in Dr Leech’s largely Bangladeshi parish in Brick Lane. He was a co-founder of Christians Against Racism and Fascism, and tirelessly warned about the dangers of right-wing fundamentalism taking root in Britain.

During the 1980s, it was clear that Anglo-Catholicism was split over the looming question of the ordination of women. “The Jubilee Group was originally opposed to the ordination of women. Some members felt that it was contrary to the doctrine of the incarnation — women were just the wrong stuff. I was strongly opposed as well, but I was converted when I saw how strongly people like John Saward and Graham Leonard felt about it. I thought, ‘Goodness, if this is the nature of the argument, then we really need to rethink.’ I think those two did more for the cause of women’s ordination than almost anyone else. They said they were like the Greens of the Church — protecting it from pollution. That seems like a dangerous way of thinking.”

Is he surprised that the very traditional Anglo-Catholics don’t go to Rome? “Yes — if Rome is right, they should submit at once. In fact, that question first arose in 1955, when there was a similar furore over the orders of the Church of South India. The issue was that ministers from the Methodist Church and other Churches were incorporated into the Anglican Church without being re-ordained. Some traditionalists were threatening to become Roman Catholics if these orders were recognised by Canterbury.”

Though Ken Leech is a gentle, softly spoken man, his writing has often shown impatience towards the evasions of his Church, and the stifling spirit of compromise that he associates with its establishment. He has consistently advocated disestablishment. In 1993, writing in The Guardian, he called Anglican bishops state nominees: “Charming and pleasant as they are, they bear the mark of the beast.” Leech himself has never been in danger of promotion, even when New Labour briefly made Christian Socialism seem fashionable.

Ken Leech had an indirect connection with Blair: he was a friend of Peter Thomson, who had converted Blair to religious Socialism at Oxford. He rightly predicted that Blair would find “Christian Socialist” an awkward label to wear. He also warned that the Christian Socialist Movement was becoming rather safe: “the religious arm of the Labour establishment”. He has kept up his criticisms of New Labour — he has recently commented that its immigration policy “makes the Tories look liberal”.

Since 1990, Dr Leech has worked as a community theologian at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, on the edge of the City. The post has been sponsored by the Christendom Trust, which normally supports research fellows in universities. This year the funds are running out, and Dr Leech feels that his work there has come to a natural end. He is returning to Manchester after 45 years, with plans for further writing: he is presently working on a book on race for SPCK. The Jubilee Group also looks to be coming to an end in its present form, after 30 years of conferences, pamphlets and campaigning.

And then of course there is Dr Williams — are they still in touch? “We haven’t met since he became Archbishop of Canterbury, but I still consider him a good friend. I do feel very sorry for Rowan. Part of me really hoped he would turn the job down, that he’d say his loyalty was to the people of Wales who elected him archbishop. All the abuse he’s been receiving is hard for him. Particularly because he’s immensely kind — he wants to listen to everyone, hear every point of view.”

Kenneth Leech

Born in 1939 to a working-class family in Greater Manchester, Leech studied history at King’s College, London, and then trained for ordination at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, in 1963. He served in parishes in Hoxton, Soho and Bethnal Green, becoming one of the Church’s foremost experts on the drug culture and related social problems. He also pioneered the Church’s engagement with racism. His espousal of “contextual theology” provided a bridge between academic theology and the Church. Since founding the Jubilee Group in 1974 he has been a leading representative of Anglo-Catholic socialist tradition, and a prolific historian of the movement.

His books include Youthquake (1973), Soul Friend (1977), True God (1985), The Eye of the Storm (1994), The Sky is Red (1997), Through Our Long Exile (2001).

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