The socialist Anglican theologian Kenneth Leech has urged Christian students to unite prayer and activism. He was speaking at the annual conference of the Student Christian Movement (SCM), which took place in Derbyshire this weekend.
SCM benefitted from the recent increase in student activism after their conference produced the highest turnout for over twenty years. The organisation has campaigned vocally against government plans to cut higher education budgets and treble tuition fees.
The conference, entitled 'Still Small Voice' took place from 4-6 February at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.
Kenneth Leech, who retired in 2004 as a Church of England priest, told the conference, “It’s very important that in an active ministry, you take prayer more, not less seriously”. He warned against “being so concerned about the rest of the world that you’re not concerned about anyone in particular”.
He said his practice of prayer had been greatly helped by living in a Franciscan House of Hospitality when in his twenties, as well as his experience of the Catholic Worker movement.
In response to a question, Leech said he finds it hard to cope with the established nature of the Church of England.
“I’ve always been opposed to the established Church and I still am,” he insisted, “A lot of
people, a lot of bishops particularly, who say they’re opposed to the Establishment, actually go on tolerating it”.
He described Establishment as “a far more serious issue than many people think”.
Other speakers included feminist theologian and poet Nicola Slee. She emphasised the need to ground prayer in everyday life.
Workshops explored topics including Orthodox prayer, Benedictine meditation and how Sikh practices can inform Christian prayerfulness. Other workshops considered mental health, ways of reading the Bible, the link between prayer and ethics and the spiritual basis of political resistance.
An ‘Open Space’ session saw participants leading spontaneous discussions on issues they care about, including disability rights, alcohol culture and coping with life after university. There was also a Campaigns Corner and a Prayer Walk around the grounds.
SCM has condemned government plans to treble the cap on university tuition fees. As protests against fees increased in the autumn, SCM urged Christians to back nonviolent direct action, citing the example of Jesus' protest in the Jerusalem Temple.
Together with the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, they suggested that active nonviolence was a better way forward for students than either giving up or resorting to violence.
Organisers said that the conference had come at “an exciting time of renewal and growth for SCM”. National Co-ordinator, Hilary Topp said that the Movement aims to provide students with “an opportunity to explore their faith, and work together for justice and peace in the world”.
SCM is the oldest national student organisation in Britain, having been founded in 1889. They are one of a number of groups keen to emphasis the role that Christians are playing in resisting the current government's economic agenda. Last year saw the launch of Common Wealth, a network of Christians opposed to the coalition's cuts.