The Revd Dr Kenneth Leech

by
02 October 2015

© Andrew Wiard 1991

“Care of the neglected”: the Revd Dr Ken Leech, preaching in 1991

“Care of the neglected”: the Revd Dr Ken Leech, preaching in 1991

Captain Terry Drummond CA writes:

THE Revd Dr Kenneth Leech known to all as Ken, who died on 12 September, aged 76, in Manchester, was a priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition associated with the slum priests of the 19th and early 20th century. He was a leading theologian, who maintained a commitment to contextual theology and pastoral practice.

Ken was born into a non-churchgoing family in Ashton-Under-Lyne, in Greater Manchester, where he returned on his retirement. He discovered the Church in his teenage years, at a time when he also became a socialist, and he attended an Anglo-Catholic parish, where his faith was nurtured and led to his vocation to priesthood.

Ken moved to east London in 1958, at the time that he was beginning his studies for a degree in history at King’s College, London. It was at this time that he met, and was befriended by, Fr Joe Williamson; Ken described him in an essay in the following way: “He was first and foremost a pastor and his life was devoted to the care and defence of the neglected.”

In many ways, Ken lived out this description in his own life, and brought to his ministry formidable theological skills, which drew on his contact and commitment to the communities in which he served.

He trained for the priesthood at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and was ordained priest in 1965. His early ministry was in parishes where poverty was endemic in the lives of the parishioners. He also faced problems of racism, and realised that drug abuse was a growing problem for many young people.

In 1967, he moved to be curate at St Anne’s, Soho, where he began to minister to young drug addicts. This led him to set up the charity Centrepoint, which became a leader in working with, and caring for, the young homeless and addicts.

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The work at Centrepoint, in turn, led to the publication of Pastoral Care of the Drug Scene, one of several books that he published on the problems of drug use and pastoral care for users.

In 1973, he published Youth Quake, in which he described the growth of a counter-culture among young people. His insights were recognised to be an important contribution to understanding the changing nature of youth culture, and he linked the changes to the importance of the development of a better understanding of the Christian spiritual tradition.

In 1971, he moved to St Augustine’s College, Canterbury, to be chaplain and tutor in pastoral studies.

In 1974, he was appointed Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, where he remained until 1979. The parish was a key recruiting-ground for the National Front and other racist organisations. Ken took an active part in challenging those who were involved, at some personal cost, which included death threats written in blood. His commitment was undaunted, and he continued to work within the community for a better understanding between all the parishioners.

Also in 1974, with Rowan Williams and others, he established the Jubilee Group, which was a network of Christian socialists, mainly in Britain, but with contacts in other parts of the world, in particular the United States, a country that he visited, to lecture and teach, for many years. An annual visit to Chicago was a part of his routine. He would often use this to visit other parts of the country.

The Jubilee Group was always a small network, and, in the Bethnal Green period, there would be regular gatherings of local clergy and laity, who would share food and discussion, often based on a paper that Ken had produced for the meeting. Often these papers, which were copied for the meeting, would include a humorous element, and at a time when the media were having a red scare, Ken penned a two-page paper with the title “How to spot a red priest”: it was funny, while containing a good deal of truth.

In 1977, the Jubilee Group celebrated the centenary of the founding of the Guild of St Matthew, by Stewart Headlam, in Bethnal Green. It was one of the first Christian Socialist groups in England, and in many ways the Jubilee Group was continued the tradition. The centenary included a high mass, at which Archbishop Michael Ramsey presided and preached.

Ken was instrumental in ensuring that the Jubilee Group produced a series of pamphlets that brought together polemical essays that challenged the issues of the day. They covered a diversity of issues, including in 1983, on the 150th anniversary of the Oxford Movement, Essays Catholic and Radical, edited with Rowan Williams, which was intended to be a challenge to recover first principles in Catholic orthodoxy.

In 1980, Ken moved to be the Race Relations Field Officer for the British Council of Churches Community and Race Relations Unit. In the following year, he was appointed to be the first Race Relations Officer for the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility, a post he held until 1987.

In this position, he developed a wide-ranging group of contacts across the dioceses, and organised conferences that brought together practitioners to share insights and gain mutual support. The work in today’s Church of England on race relations has much to give thanks for in the pioneering work that he undertook in the field of race relations and the Churches.

In 1987, he became Director of the Runneymede Trust, the think tank dedicated to promoting ethnic diversity in Britain. In his time as Director, he was responsible for moving the offices from central London to Brick Lane in the East End, the heart of a multi-racial area and community.

In 1991, he was appointed to the post of Community Theologian at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, a post created for him, funded from charitable sources. In this position, he was free to work on issues of contextual theology. There were several themes throughout his years in ministry, in particular a commitment to working for justice for all people, and, in particular, minorities, especially those from black and ethnic groups, and gay men and lesbians. He also worked for the ordination of women.

Among his many books, Soul Friend was seminal for many people in gaining a better understanding of the importance of spiritual direction, while True Prayer addressed the importance of prayer in a way that was accesible for the ordinary churchgoer.

True God was a systematic theological study, which is, like many of his books, a classic that has stood the test of time.

During the years at St Botolph’s, he published books that explored urban and contextual ministry. In each case, they capture the essence of the importance of urban ministry, which in the Church of “Fresh Expressions” can, to my mind, be lost.

At the heart of Ken’s ministry was the mystery of the mass, which was the centre of the call of Christian people to ministry. Like the Old Testament prophets, he could be a voice crying in the wilderness, but this did not stop him speaking and writing.

Last year, he married Julie Wood, who survives him, as does Carl, his son from a previous marriage.

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