A few days ago, if the name Ken Leech had been mentioned I would not have had a clue who he was. Since then, two of my Facebook friends have paid glowing tributes to Ken Leech, who has died recently, citing him as a key inspirational figure behind their own significant contribution to working among the homeless, sanctuary seekers etc. I therefore decided to find out more about him. This Wikipedia article and this Guardian obituary are two that I came up with, and my appetite is whetted to find out more about this man.
Before explaining why I believe Ken Leech is a significant figure and some of the impact he made, I would like to put the clock back 45 years to when I started as a student at Queen Mary College in the East End of London, as it has a bearing on this posting. I started university as a young, zealous Evangelical Christian with a social conscience and saw the East End, with its long association with poverty and social issues, as somewhere I could contribute toward making a difference. It turned out that did not happen to any significant extent and the reason was, partly at least, the Christians who took a lead in these activities were not of the Evangelical ilk, and I found myself concentrating on things like personal evangelism instead. The focus, as far as the college was concerned, when it came to Christian social action, was its chaplain, Rev. Malcolm Johnson. Malcolm was a nice guy but we were theologically poles apart and I resolved to have nothing to do with him. He did, though, have the knack of inviting along influential figures to the college and one (I think) was a Ken Leech, who had recently started the charity, Centrepoint, with its focus on youth homelessness and tackling some of the issues that had a bearing, e.g. drug addiction. Malcolm was veering toward Anglo-Catholic, Christian Socialism (which my Christian mentors disapproved of), just like Ken Leech and, moreover, also like Ken Leech, was to champion the cause of woman’s ordination and LBGT rights in the Anglican church. When Malcolm left QMC, he became Vicar of St. Botolph’s, Aldgate, developing a significant ministry among the homeless and those living with HIV / AIDS. Sometime later, from my light research, Ken Leech joined that church, leaving me pondering the connections.
The thing that attracted me to Ken was that he combined having a deep spirituality, despite still being in a different church camp to me, and a heart for the poor and passion for justice which was matched by the ability, tenacity and wisdom to achieve (evidenced by his writings) what was laid upon his heart. From what I can make out, the Centrepoint project alone is a remarkable one that has helped many and still does (e.g. its website claims “it provides a safe place to live for more than 2,900 young people, aged 16-25, every year in London and the north east of England”) and the indication is he had fingers in many other pies. The Wikipedia write up I find intriguing: “Leech was an advocate of contextual theology. As much as he admired the work of academic theologians, he insisted that authentic Christian theology could not be confined to the academy or to the pastor’s study. He believed that it must be grounded in prayer and should be the work of the entire local Christian community across the boundaries of class, race and sex. 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 of faith and the quest for justice, which points to the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, is the essential mark of the Christian life and underlies Scripture, the teachings of the Church Fathers and the Christian mystical tradition”. Besides not being altogether sound theologically speaking according to what I was taught he also had to struggle with his own demons, one of which was alcohol dependency. Despite his flaws, and we all have them, what he achieved and what he managed to inspire was monumental.
As I contemplate setting up and managing a homeless night shelter and assisting in a number of other community projects that relate to poverty and social injustice, I will do well to take a leaf out of Ken Leech’s book. In more recent years, I wrote a paper (available on the web) comparing E.B.Pusey (one of a long line of Anglo-Catholics that like Leech worked so sacrificially among the poor) and J.N.Darby (one more connected to my own theological stable) who had a similar approach toward the poor but did things a little differently, and concluded that sometimes opposites have more in common than realized. I have come a long way since those college days when I turned my back on a number of opportunities because these didn’t quite match my own narrow expectation of what God required of me. What Ken showed is that when dealing with a whole raft of complex and seemingly impossible situations that maybe it is best to put to one side any manual and simply do what needs to be done. The other thing is that this is not at the expense of operating from a spiritual perspective. I would love to have met Ken and who knows what I might have discovered, but my impression is that he had a deep devotion toward and quiet confidence in the Almighty and this is what carried him serenely through turbulent times.