The radical priest, theologian and activist, Rev. Ken Leech recently died, aged 76, following a stroke.
Ken founded the youth homeless charity Centrepoint in 1969 and wrote prolifically on the how intimacy with God relates to political action and social justice. I worked for Centrepoint for five years and Ken has been a very significant influence on my work and thinking.
I think this quote sums up much of what I appreciate about Ken’s writing:
‘Our spiritual pilgrimage is not within an artificial religious world, but within the real world in which coal is mined and lemon meringue pie is made, the world in which companies are taken over and homeless people die in the street, the world in which wars are declared and millions long for peace and for justice.’
Passion and anger
I first came across Ken when I was living on a housing estate in Islington and my friend Corin Pilling lent me some of his books. They were like no Christian books that I had read before – they did not have the theological ‘tidiness’ I was accustomed to.
Rather they burned with an intense passion and anger about poverty and injustice and the importance of concrete involvement in the struggle against them. It was both disturbing and inspiring.
In the coming years, I got to met Ken on a number of occasions as I got involved in the Christian homeless network, UNLEASH. In my mid-twenties, I remember feeling very out of my depth when asked to run a theological seminar on the Bible and homelessness. Ken was a real encouragement and sent me a load of articles to help me prepare.
He would pop in to see me when I later managed the Centrepoint hostel on Dean Street in Soho which was the site of the original shelter he had established. In 1999, he spoke at Centrepoint’s 30th birthday, along with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Ken’s passionate address wiped the floor with Blair’s safely scripted speech.
When I later moved to the Shaftesbury Society, I took all of our church-based community workers for a tour of Centrepoint’s hostel followed by a seminar on faith and activism with Ken. His clarity that orthodox Christianity must be radical and challenging of the status quo made a deep impression on everyone.
I’ll end with two quotes from Ken, as I think they capture two essential elements of his prophetic challenge – both around the missional, outward role the Church should play but also the inward spiritual challenge for each of us. As ever, it is the holding together of these elements that lies at the heart of the Christian faith:
‘Hope is a piece of work’
“The Churches in the twenty-first century will be in a crucial position to influence opinion, and to awaken hope. But ‘hope is a piece of work, not a state of mind’. The nurturing of hopeful commitment requires effort, prayer, struggle, and persistence. In their response to poverty and despair, the Churches need to reject the widespread assumption of a general goodwill, the idea that most people – including the government – are on the same side, and that, if only the evidence were presented, all will be well. ‘Faith in the City’ seemed to assume this, and it may therefore be the last document of its kind. I have never believed it, and see it as one of the most fatal naiveties of the liberal tradition…Churches in the next century are likely to become more marginal. They will need to earn the right to be heard by the intrinsic sense of what they say, and by their own integrity and credibility. This could be the salvation of the churches, but we will need to develop new and far stronger forms of solidarity and sustenance.” (The Sky is Red, 1998, p,107)
‘The cultivation of inner stillness’
“One of the most serious dangers confronting those who minister in the inner city is that their lives come to be built on frenzy and compulsive busyness. This usually leads to lack of focus, a tendency to accumulate more and more things, a collapse of reflection, and the cultivation of a personal culture of obligatory tiredness. This personal culture then becomes socially infectious so that one may communicate little to others other than one’s own exhaustion – not a very kind gift to people who may enough problems of their own. The practice of silence and solitude, including the cultivation of inner stillness and inner peace, is a vital component of urban spirituality.” (Through Our Long Exile 2001, p208)
Rev. Kenneth Leech. May he Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.