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Fr. Ken Leech R.I.P.

September 17, 2015

KLI first encountered Ken at S. Bartholomew’s Armley, Leeds in 1971. Its vicar, Fr. Norrie Maccurry, was celebrating his 25th anniversary of ordination and Ken was the preacher. I remember him wearing a biretta and thumping the pulpit to emphasis that ‘The Word was made flesh.’

I later encountered him when he set up the Jubilee Group for anglo-catholic socialists working in urban priority areas. I joined it when it was opened to lay members and enjoyed receiving irregular stencilled bulletins.

He didn’t fit in with any of the competing parties within the movement. Like anglo-papalists, he championed the Roman Rite yet, like Affirming Catholics, he championed gay rights and women’s ordination.

Ken was born into a working-class family in North-West England in 1939.

In 1958, while studying history, he arrived in the East End of London, an area of high deprivation but rich diversity, where he would spend many years and which helped to shape his life.

He went on to St. Stephen’s House Oxford to prepare for ordination.

When he was curate of St Anne’s Soho, he cared for young people with drug problems and, in the basement, set up Centrepoint, a shelter for homeless people.

He was a strong critic of capitalism and opponent of racism in church and society. He served as a race relations officer in the Church of England and as the director of the Runnymede Trust, promoting respect for ethnic diversity, as well as challenging the far right directly on the streets of East London. On one occasion, he purified the streets of his parish after National Front march, using lashings of holy water and singing the Litany in procession.

When the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was forced out of St Botolph’s Aldgate by Archdeacon George Cassidy, he preached at the a service of Exodus.

Ken was an expert on all the various movements within the catholic movement. He always reminded us that the ‘slum priests’ weren’t socialists. They were mainly paternalist tories. He wrote a highly critical pamplhlet about our movement called ‘BEYOND GIN AND LACE: homosexuality and the Anglo-Catholic subculture.’ Memorable sections include: The ritualist movement of the late 19th Century flourished in new industrial towns, in old city slums, in seaside resorts (whence the nickname given to ACism of “Brighton and South Coast religion”) and in some very posh neighbourhoods. Ritualism contained within itself a number of different trends of which two were particularly significant and contrasted. There were those who looked to continental Rome for their inspiration both in theology and in rite and ceremony, and who became known therefore as “Anglo-Papalists” or “Romanisers” or, in C.B. Moss’s term, “ultramarines’.4 They ranged, and still range, from those who see the Church of England as two provinces of the Western Church which have become separated from the See of Rome by a series of historical accidents, to those who, while rejecting many of the Roman claims, nevertheless, in their liturgical and spiritual practice, draw heavily on Roman teaching and styles. The changes in the Roman Communion since the Second Vatican Council have meant that the kind of Anglo-Papalism which was, in a previous era, associated with such groups as the Catholic League, the Society of the Holy Cross and the Society . for Promoting Catholic Unity, and journals such as The Pilot, The Dome and Crux, no longer exists except as a fringe oddity.

And: There was a profound devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, to Christ as “the prisoner of the tabernacle”. Here, in the words of Father Faber, “a helpless and captive God experiences a mournful universal solitude in the little dungeon of the tabernacle”. Much of the Catholic piety of this type was very genteel, precious and dainty. It was a form of camp/kitsch devotionalism in which the symbolism of the Sacred Heart (often portrayed as a somewhat feminine young man) and the Blessed Virgin (an agenital, almost androgyne, young woman) were almost interchangeable. Hymns to the Sacred Heart (“Sweet Heart of Jesus, fount of love and mercy”, “To Jesus’ heart all burning” and so on) and to the Blessed Virgin would be high on the repertoire of these churches. Devotion to Mary the pure virgin was particularly ~ important, and AC men and women would pray, in Faber’s words: Thou who were pure as driven snow,/Make me as thou wert here below.

He lauded: Its emphasis on the doctrine of the incarnation, on the material basis of all religion and spirituality. The AC stress on sacramental worship, on the place of art, music and beauty, on incense, statues and banners, was an inevitable byproduct of its theology of creation and incarnation and of the church and sacraments as the extension of the incarnation into the world. The element of rebelliousness and “nonconformity”, evident not only in liturgical but also in social and cultural matters. George Orwell described ACism as “the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism”,

He condemned: The phenomenon known as “spikery”. The spike is usually a male, often a young male, who has the minutiae of ceremonial at his finger tips. Spikes are to be found in all AC churches. Their distinguishing feature is their obsessive concern with liturgical “correctness”, and at times their concern with “doing things properly” takes precedence over the actual ..meaning of the liturgy or indeed of the faith itself. While there are parallels in. the Roman Communion, spikery is essentially an AC creation, and does not exist in the same form anywhere else in the Christian world. It is one of .the curiosities of ACism and it arises wherever that movement takes root.

On homosexuality within the subculture: The Wesleyan writer James .Rigg, writing in the 1890s, described the Oxford Movement as “characteristically feminine”.14 Charles Kingsley accused both Roman Catholics and Tractarians of “foppery. ..a fastidious maundering, die-away effeminacy” The newly founded Cuddesdon College was attacked for effeminacy in the 1850s. A Protestant visitor to St. Matthias, Stoke Newington in 1868 commented on the juvenile and womanly appearance of the men.16 Punch wrote of “Parsons in Petticoats” in 1865 while Mr. Kensit of the Protestant Truth Society, after a visit to St. Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens in 1898, observed that the congregation were “very poor specimens of men. ..They seemed a peculiar sort of people, very peculiar indeed” An Oxford undergraduate in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) was warned by his cousin, “Beware of the Anglo-Catholics — they’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents”. An account of Fr. Eric Cheetham, Vicar of St. Stephen’s. Gloucester Road, noted that “like many Anglo-Catholic priests …[he] seemed not altogether masculine. A pastime to which he was addicted was dressmaking”. There are many similar examples which could be cited. Many are funny, others very unpleasant, and most consist of half- truths and stereotypes; but they demonstrate that a perceived connection between ACism and homosexuality was part of the ammunition of critics of the movement from its early days.

He reckoned: It does seem clear that there is some correlation between the AC clerical ghetto (gay and straight) and the most extreme and pathological forms of hostility to the ordination of women, and indeed the deeply-rooted gynophobia which is endemic to much AC life. The contrast between the attitudes to women in this group and those among the post-1960s more openly gay Christians (represented, for example, in Britain in the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement) is very striking. Gynophobia and the dread of women is, of course, by no means restricted to sections of the “gin and lace” fringe of the AC movement: but it does seem there to have been exalted into a way of life in a very extreme form.

He concluded: My provisional conclusion is that it is probably not possible for gay Anglicans to make much theological and spiritual sense of being gay within the climate fostered by ACism without a definite break either with the “pathological” aspects of the subculture, or possibly with the subculture as a whole. Some would argue that the whole subculture is pathological, that ACism today is so deeply damaged in its attitudes to sexuality that it is incapable of healthy growth. Certainly, the atmosphere within the AC world since the General . Synod debate does not give many grounds for hope that it constitutes a place to which gay people can look for honesty, courageous exploration of new ground, or any commitment to the defence of lesbian and gay people in the present hostile and oppressive climate. On the other hand, there are hopeful signs, and ACism is at least free of the very unpleasant and deranged forms of homophobia associated with some types of evangelical fundamentalism. A great deal depends on how responsive ACs, particularly the younger generation, are to the positive movements of the last two decades, and that takes us beyond sexuality to the critique of the whole framework of our society.

At the heart of his faith was what he called “subversive orthodoxy”; the indissoluble union of contemplative spirituality, sacramental worship, orthodox doctrine and social action. He argued that this conjunction was a central theme of Scripture, the Church Fathers and the Christian mystical tradition. His work also drew on the radical and revolutionary strands in Anglo-Catholicism represented by figures such as Stewart Headlam, Thomas Hancock, Charles Marson, Percy Widdrington, Conrad Noel and Stanley Evans. He respected the contributions of Frederick Denison Maurice, Brooke Westcott, Charles Gore, William Temple and other reform-minded Anglican Christian socialists, but thought them too timid and middle-class.

From 1990 until his retirement in 2004, he was a community theologian based at St Botolph’s, which was located between the City of London, a global centre of wealth and power, and the poverty of Whitechapel.

His books include True God https://layreadersbookreviews.wordpress.com/2015/04/12/true-prayer-an-introduction-to-christian-spirituality-ken-leech/ , and Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade: A Critical Evaluation

https://layreadersbookreviews.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/573/ .

As a spiritual director, I am sometimes haunted by Ken’s assertion, in Soul Friend, that any director who charges for his services is a fraud and a charlatan.

Spirituality, for Ken, wasn’t about lovely feelings. In The Social God he wrote: 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. It is within this highly deranged culture that contemplatives explore the waste of their own being. It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that they pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things. 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.

We thought we had lost Ken a couple of years ago when he was seriously ill shortly after his retirement. But the next we heard was that he’d got married again. But he died of cancer on 12 September 2015.

The last time I saw him, he told me, in my local pub, that the older he became, the more radical he became.

An account of how his funeral reflected his life see https://davidemmott.wordpress.com/2015/10/17/celebrating-a-prophet/

The funeral liturgy and eulogy are at https://stchrysostoms.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/fr-ken-leechs-requiem-liturgy-and-eulogy/

See also http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22081

and https://stchrysostoms.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/fr-ken-leech-1939-2015/

and http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/2015/09/in-memoriam-kenneth-leech/

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