Savi Hensman

Remembering Ken Leech

By Savi Hensman
September 15, 2015

Kenneth Leech, theologian, activist and priest, died of cancer on 12 September 2015. Bringing together the prophetic and pastoral, he had influenced many people through his writings, as well as founding the charity Centrepoint in 1969.

Ken was born into a working-class family in North-West England in 1939. He became an Anglo-Catholic and socialist. 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 study theology in Oxford and was ordained.

His thinking was shaped not only by the Bible and church tradition – in particular the emphasis on the connection between love of God and concern for justice – but also personal encounters, especially with those who felt alienated. He championed “subversive orthodoxy”.

As a curate at St Anne’s Soho, he met and cared for young people with drug problems. And in the basement he set up a shelter for homeless people. Centrepoint would go on to help thousands of people.

In 1974, with Rowan Williams (later Archbishop of Canterbury) and others, he formed the Jubilee Group, a left-wing Christian network. To Ken, prayer and worship, particularly the sacraments, were inextricably tied up with attentiveness to those in need and social action to address its causes.

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.

He also worked for greater acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including preaching at a service of Exodus when the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was forced out of St Botolph’s Aldgate by the then Archdeacon of London. He was one of many influential Anglo-Catholics who supported women’s ordination.

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. I had come to know him well through the Jubilee Group and became part of a support group which helped him to reflect on his work. He took seriously the importance of remaining grounded and self-critical.

While he was deeply spiritual and passionate about justice, he also had a lively sense of humour, someone who enjoyed cafes and pubs as well as deep conversations. I and many others benefited from his friendship and encouragement.

When he was in his mid-sixties he returned to Tameside. His health was precarious for some years and he died in a care home in Manchester. He is survived by his wife Julie and son Carl.

His books include Soul Friend: A Study of Spirituality, True God, The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice, The Sky is Red: Discerning the Signs of the Times, We Preach Christ Crucified, Through our Long Exile: Contextual Theology and the Urban Experience and Doing theology in Altab Ali Park. Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech, edited by David Bunch and Angus Ritchie (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd and New York: Seabury Books, 2009) is a useful introduction to his writings.

I finish with a couple of quotations:

"Ministry on the margins is rooted in scripture and tradition, in spite of the bias of many churches towards the ‘mainstream’ of respectability. The Bible makes the experience of marginality normative for the people of God." ( Doing theology in Altab Ali Park)

"Christian prayer is living prayer, prayer which is a sharing in the risen life of Christ. But that experience of being risen in Christ comes only through the experience of dying: light comes through the sharing of the darkness. That is the meaning of dying daily: every day we do ‘die a little’ and so prepare for the final conflict. True prayer should help us face, and not evade, that conflict, by enabling us to live as we shall eventually die." (True Prayer)

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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