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Obituary: Bruce Kent

17 June 2022


Bruce Kent at the Greenham Common women’s peace camp in 1983

Bruce Kent at the Greenham Common women’s peace camp in 1983

Canon Paul Oestreicher writes:

THE long life of Bruce Kent, who has died, aged 92, is proof, if proof were needed, of the human capacity to progress from the ordinary to the extraordinary, to be changed from what we are to what we can become: nothing less than a new person. Bruce, on his remarkable pilgrimage, came close to fulfilling his potential. His death — may I call it his promotion — was not the end of the journey.

Born in Blackheath, south-east London, to Canadian parents, a Presbyterian father and a devout Roman Catholic mother, he spent part of the Second World War in Canada and returned to a comfortable home in Hampstead Garden Suburb; and thence, something of a shock, to the Jesuit Stonehurst College and to Brasenose College, Oxford, to take a law degree. He then did two years’ national service as an officer in the Royal Tank Regiment.

It was all perfectly conventional, as Bruce recognised: “It took me another twenty years at least to realise how effectively I had been processed for English establishment life and values.” Nevertheless, the seeds had been well sown — mothers matter — on his path to the priesthood. His father was not so happy.

His vocation dawned in the army. It ripened. Six years at Ware Seminary led to his ordination in Westminster Cathedral in 1958. It was the birth year of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The peace marches through Kensington, where he was a curate, were a bloody nuisance to him, getting in the way of his society weddings.

The young conservative priest already shone, genial as he was to remain, and liked by everyone. Cardinal Heenan was looking for a secretary. Who better, even to deliver rosary beads to a servant at No. 10? The relationship only just held. A series of parish posts followed.

The straight-down-the line popular priest seemed just right for the Catholic chaplaincy to London University. The title of Monsignor flagged up a future bishop. But then, from this Cardinal’s point of view, it all began to go pear-shaped. Bruce — students ignore titles — discovered a new world of ecumenism and even sex beyond the confessional. The butterfly began to leave its chrysalis.

Pope John XXlll had opened windows in Rome. Bruce met poverty in India. Archbishop Roberts SJ of Bombay had, at the Vatican Council, put peace on the Catholic map, as well as respect for conscientious objectors to war. Cardinal Heenan did not belong to that Church; nor did Bruce any longer to that Cardinal’s. Close to Bruce’s heart was the devout Austrian farmer, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight in Hitler’s war and was beheaded. Pilgrimages to his village enriched Bruce’s life.

Heenan’s successor, Basil Hume, opened a new chapter. Bruce Kent was now embracing a gospel that was social and, therefore, political. It was for all people to whom Jesus was saying: “Do not be afraid. The Father offers you the Kingdom.” Nuclear weapons and that Kingdom, Bruce was sure, were at war with each other. That meant his total commitment to the struggle. He could not be half-hearted.

Canon John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral had led CND in its first phase. Bruce was prepared to take up the baton. He held every formal position that CND could offer and proved to be an effective organiser, but — and he liked that — there was never a president. In effect, he came rightly to be seen as the Father of the British Peace Movement. It was hard to play that totally demanding part as a Catholic parish priest. The Cardinal sympathised, but found it difficult to square this prophetic priesthood with what was still, despite its reforms, a frightened and apolitical Church.

A crisis had to come. On 11 February 1987, at least in part for Hume’s sake, Bruce, in tears, laid down his active priesthood, but not the priesthood itself. He called it retirement. It was a sacrifice for a greater good.

CND alone was not enough. With immense energy, Bruce went on to establish the Movement for the Abolition of War. Call it naïve. The gospel is about hope.

The Guardian called Bruce the most controversial priest of his generation. Perhaps he was a modern-day John Ball, erstwhile of Blackheath fame and notoriety. Yet this gentle priest was no firebrand. Michael Heseltine, when Minister of Defence, charged him with “doing Moscow’s work” in the Cold War. Had he followed the advice of the right-wing press and “gone back to Moscow”, he would soon have landed in the Gulag.

A weakness may have been insufficiently to recognise how evil Stalinism and its supporters were. On many a British peace committee, with his razor-sharp mind, he could — being somewhere between intrepid and headstrong — fail to listen to others patiently. Bruce, the unguarded communicator, was a heavenly gift to the cartoonists.

Bruce became CND General Secretary in 1980, at one of the Movement’s low points. When Polaris was replaced with Trident and plans were made to host Cruise missiles at Greenham, the national mood changed. Before long, Bruce was addressing 250,000 people in Hyde Park. By 1982, Denis Healey, Deputy Labour Leader and no unilateralist, credited CND with “achieving the most impressive victory for single-issue politics in recorded history”. It was a pyrrhic victory. Not even the end of the Cold War moved Britain to abandon its “nuclear deterrent”.

Nothing ever deterred Bruce from active campaigning. No invitation was ever too unimportant. Young people mattered most. No one was too old. Nor was his vision confined to Britain. He hated nationalism. His leading role in the International Peace Bureau mattered greatly. He was the British coordinator of the Hague Appeal for Peace.

That in 1987 Bruce stood as a Labour candidate in an unwinnable seat was a distraction from his real priorities. He was too radical for the Labour Party. His were NGO, not party, politics. War on Want, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and Prison Reform mattered more to him than a back bench seat in Westminster.

Late, but not too late, Bruce’s award for ecumenism from the Archbishop of Canterbury and an honorary doctorate from Coventry University were welcome affirmations of all that Bruce means to so many.

Bruce’s marriage to Dr Valerie Flessati, his friend, fellow peace activist, and in every way his equal, was a liberating source of personal fulfilment and joy.

Valerie and his sister Rosemary survive him.

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