The title of this lecture is the title of a book of Ken’s: The Eye of the Storm (1992). It’s subtitled “Spiritual resources for the pursuit of justice” and basically that’s what this lecture is about.
But the epigraph for this lecture is not from Ken, but from a priest whose journey has taken a different route from him - John Drury, for many years an Oxbridge college chaplain, fellow, for twelve years Dean of Christ Church Oxford, now at All Souls.
In the acknowledgements to his book “The Pot and the Knife” (1979, the year I was ordained deacon) he expresses his thanks among others “To the clergyman at a King’s Lynn lecture course who told me that God was both more immanent and more transcendent than is usually supposed.” He added: “(he has since become a social worker)”.
I have lived with those words for 40 years, and they illuminate Ken for me as well as illuminating my own discipleship.
God is both more immanent and more transcendent than is usually supposed.
In 1977 I was 24, and being formed for ministry at Queen’s College Birmingham. These were years when the National Front was the fascist party of the day, and when popular movements like Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League were being formed to resist it. In the Christian community in Birmingham there was an organisation called AFFOR - All Faiths For One Race, one of whose early directors was the Labour politician Clare Short - and nationally there was the umbrella organisation CARAF - Christians Against Racism And Fascism. In the world Church the Word Council of Churches’ programme to Combat Racism was attracting its share of controversy, and at my college we voted to support it financially, to the great distress of the College bursar of the time.
As well as being involved in all this I was trying to learn what it would mean for my inner development to be a priest. In preparation for that I read a book and indeed I led a seminar on it at College, and its name was Soul Friend by Kenneth Leech, published in 1977. And I was learning disciplines of prayer as you do at college, learning to say the office daily, learning the Jesus Prayer, checking out the rosary. And resourcing all this - the street work and the knee work - I was a member of the West Midlands Jubilee Group, with Roger Arguile and a bunch of colleagues more senior than me - and I was exploring becoming an associate of the contemplative community called the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford. I ended up becoming a priest-associate SLG in 1980, as Ken did in 1976.
Anyway at some point in these years of formation I went to an anti-racism conference at Carrs Lane church in the middle of Birmingham, together with a guy called John Hick. John was a professor of the philosophy of religion and, like me, a member of the council of AFFOR - indeed he chaired the council, while I was the token youth. John Hick had edited a book called “The Myth of God Incarnate” which was briefly controversial. And at this conference in Carrs Lane church I met Ken Leech for the first time, where Ken and John were both speaking at the conference, and I introduced them to one another and got them both a cup of coffee and listened in as they spoke together about what we would now call faith in the public square.
I tell this story partly to give honour to John Hick, whose star has fallen in the years since and who is often dismissed as some sort of über-liberal ivory-tower guy, but who was in fact a prayerful, engaged and committed Christian activist who stood clearly with the anti-fascist movement of that time. And I tell the story because this is the Ken Leech memorial lecture, and because Ken’s witness to all the things I’ve mentioned above is well known and is always deserving of honour. Ken was part of something bigger, as I was and as John Hick was and as Bishop Lesslie Newbigin was, the outstanding missional theologian of his generation, who was also in Birmingham in the 70s because he had retired from India to be a URC minister in an inner city church opposite the gates of Winson Green prison. It was Lesslie Newbigin who wrote this: “A preaching of the gospel that calls men and women to accept Jesus as Savior but does not make it clear that discipleship means commitment to a vision of society radically different from that which controls our public life today must be condemned as false.” And he too turned up to meetings of AFFOR and spoke his mind there.
So all these people stood together, against hatred and for what we now tend to call inclusion, and what we might equally well call justice.
But the struggle for justice was only part of the contribution of these people. Each of them in their very different way had learned to breathe in times of buffeting, and they taught others how to breathe. It was a wonderful formation for a young student.
And here we are in a pandemic, in the populist West, being buffeted afresh, and needing to know how to breathe, both in and out.
In his book “Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park” Ken tells this story:
“I had spoken at a conference [in Chicago] on responses to racial violence. After the conference, a local priest thanked me for my contribution. Just before I left, he said: “You must often get confused with the other Kenneth Leech who writes books on prayer and spirituality”. I managed to keep a very straight face and said, “Yes, I am often confused with him”.
In and out. The breath of the spirit, like all breath, is an alternating current. Reaching to the transcendent God in worship and the search for understanding the mystery, and also in the spirit of the incarnation reaching to the hurting world in struggle and the search for justice - it is only together that these movements will connect us with the life of God, who is both more immanent and more transcendent than is usually supposed.
When I was in a Team Ministry in the 80s one of my colleagues - an evangelical as it happens, though he could have been from any tradition - described his church. It was a church that had received steady and solid Bible teaching week by week, month by month year by year just as other churches receive steady and solid Eucharistic discipline week by week, month by month, year by year. He was becoming aware that this was not enough. He said: “It’s as if our church has been breathing in week by week, month by month, year by year, breathing in, receiving teaching, breathing in, never using it, breathing in, and now its lungs are bursting.” He was saying that his people had been equipped and prepared to live a life they never actually lived, a life of exhalation, a life of difference-making, a life of justice, a life of struggle. And in the absence of such exhalation, such action, they had nothing to do but hold their breath.
And I know in my own experience that when a few years later I was privileged to be co-chair of Christian CND in the early 80s, and to spend time outside USAF bases, or on Cruisewatch, or marking MOD buildings with ash, and from time to time to have to wait inside police station cells, in those moments it was Bible study, or singing hymns, or celebrating the Eucharist, that fed a hunger for the things of the spirit that was necessary, because it was topical - in other words it was a hunger that came from being in a place and a time, a concrete and not an abstract hunger, a hunger for the true God in the real world, the God who is both more immanent and more transcendent than is usually supposed.
Ken was a mid-seventies prophet, but he was not the only one. You could see the signs of the times in the movies too. So in Norman Jewison’s 1975 film “Rollerball” the hero Jonathan E is invited to visit the corporate villain, the executive Mr Bartholomew (beautifully played incidentally by John Houseman) in his office, a place of calm and stillness with glass rods hanging and quiet music, and the first thing Bartholomew says to him is “Come in, Jonathan. Keep silence with me for a minute, won't you?” - and they sit in meditation, or at least Bartholomew does.
I often recall that scene when I read of the application of mindfulness in the commercial world, or when I read analyses of the spirituality of the West that use the phrase “spiritual but not religious”. “Come in, Jonathan. Keep silence with me for a minute, won't you?” - keep silence with me before I silence you, and tell you what to do, and reduce you to your place in my corporate world. Breathe in with me, so that your lungs are too full for action.
When in 1843 Marx wrote in passing that "religion is the opium of the people” it was the Bartholomews of his time he was thinking of. When in 1997 in “The Sky is Red, Ken speaks of “Spirituality and narcissism”, it’s the Bartholomews of his time he has in mind, as he quotes Bishop David Hope who said: “Spirituality can simply become a search for the alternative feel-good factor or an escape into a purely personal pietism, wholly directed towards one’s own self fulfillment, and based largely on feeling and emotion…” and when he says that “Grace Jantzen has recently pointed out that prayer, meditation and even books on spirituality may simply be helping people to cope with the stresses of life which arise from unjust social conditions without challenging those conditions themselves” it is the Bartholomews of the world that he seeks to identify, perhaps feeling as he does that even his own books can be placed in Bartholomew’s office - “Come in, Ken. Keep silence with me for a minute, won’t you?”
It was with all this in his mind that Ken chose the subtitle for “The Eye of the Storm”: “Spiritual resources for the pursuit of justice”. There is a storm, and it is raging, and it has an eye, a still place in the middle. To breathe in is to find, and to place yourself within, the eye of the storm, but to live the life of the spirit cannot be to remain there - not if the effects of the storm are to be countered, and those made homeless by the storm are to be housed, and those made hungry by the storm are to be fed.
Bartholomew’s silences invite us into an abstract place. They will not connect us with the life of the true God, the God of the incarnation, who is both more immanent and more transcendent than is usually supposed.
Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He was not some spaced-out and serene role model whose teaching left everything as it was. If he had been, he would not have been crucified by the occupying power. He lived in the storm, breathing in at the eye, and breathing out in the tempest. And he invited people to be not servants but friends, and as friends to follow him.
The thesis of this lecture is that the pursuit of justice is what makes your prayer authentic, just as the resources of silence and liturgy will preserve your soul alive in the struggle for justice. It’s not only that you need inner resources if you are to struggle. It’s that if you don’t struggle, the inner resources will be in you just as the manna was in the Israelites who hoarded it - rotten and maggot-ridden.
An illustration of what I mean, from the Bible. First Peter 3 is one of those chapters that causes many eyes to roll, or brows to furrow, when it turns up in the lectionary, speaking as it does about husbands and wives. I don’t propose to do an exegesis of that here, but I do want to refer you to First Peter 3:7, “Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honour to the woman… since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers.”
Here in today’s language is an exhortation to men to give honour to women, and a warning that if the relationship between the sexes remains unjust, then there will be an inner-life consequence - prayer will be hindered.
And more widely in chapter 4 of the same letter” “The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course this may be read, and often is read, in a sectarian way, as though the writer has no thought for relationships outside the community of faith; but I think it’s appropriate also to see it in the context of breathing in the storm; seriousness and discipline is a social matter and if you don’t identify where to stand and struggle as a Christian then you abandon good prayer, you abandon it if you like for Bartholomew-prayer, “Keep silence with me for a minute”, keep a vapid silence with no purpose other than to equip yourself to live serenely in the midst of injustice.
Gerry Hughes, Gerard W Hughes SJ, the one who wrote “God of Surprises”, was a retreat-giver of real distinction in his later lifetime and one who was in high demand because of the success of his book among others. But Gerry W would prioritise retreats among the justice and peace community, on the grounds (to use my language) that here were people obeying God by entering the storm and therefore in the most need of help in finding the eye of the storm; here was the community of the spirit with the first call on his skills and his resources.
In a previous generation you saw the same in the USA, when Thomas Merton, extraordinarily famous and yet living the hermit life, constantly bothered by people, would prioritise his limited time by sharing wisdom and praying with people like the Berrigan brothers, and Jim Forest and others - those who followed the way of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, that is with activists in the storm, people whose decisions might see them put in jail, or fired from their job, or ostracised by other people of faith. In short Merton spent his time with the people who needed resourcing most.
But I think the other reason why these teachers of the inner life, like Gerry W, and Merton, and Joan Chittister OSB, and indeed Rowan Williams in previous days with CND and in these days with Christian Aid and Extinction Rebellion - the reason why these people placed their wisdom at the disposal of communities of justice was so that their own prayers might not be hindered. They believed in the incarnation, and if you believe inn the incarnation then, like the artist Bertolt Brecht, who had a sign with this above his desk, you believe that the truth is concrete. So as well as experiencing the holy in lovely old buildings, to breathe in the tempest is to enter a community of justice because that, too, is a place where prayer has been made valid. The pursuit of justice itself confers spiritual resources, as we breathe out and in, making room for a life-changing silence and stillness by emptying the lungs of the spirit in the public square, breathing in the way that gives life.
This is not a new way of living, but an underground stream of Christian spirituality that has flowed for centuries and that flows still. Resources for it predate and postdate Ken Leech, but for us in England his witness remains a key voice in this chorus.
So to pick a very few other voices there’s Gutierrez’ book “We drink from our own wells”, or the Peruvian catechism Vamos Caminando, or Ernesto Cardenal’s outstanding series of Biblical resources that form “The Gospel from Solentiname”, or in our own day the work of Ann Morisy or the wisdom coming to the churches in Al Barrett and Ruth Harley’s soon-to-be-published “Being Interrupted: Reimagining the Church's Mission from the Outside, In”. Echoes of that same wisdom are heard in much that Pope Francis writes and enacts. This is a long tradition and it contains wisdom to breathe by.
And in the midst of it there’s Ken, and all that he wrote and all that he lived in his quirky and imperfect way, as quirky and imperfect as we all are. From The Eye of the Storm to Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park, his writings remain guides in tempestuous times. And of course he himself repeatedly pointed to the tradition that he made his own - to Conrad Noel and to Stewart Headlam and to Stanley Evans and to William Stringfellow.
This tradition is alive. In the USA over the past year or two I’ve been delighted to see a range of thinking from a new generation, mostly members of The Episcopal Church - for example the community that gathers around the online magazine “Earth and Altar” and the overlapping community that gathers around the online magazine “The Hour”. These are theologically orthodox, socially progressive, politically engaged theological activists, whose debt to the Anglican socialist tradition is clear and freely referenced.
Just last week “The Hour” published a fine long-form essay by Will Levanway on the communist priest Stanley Evans. Levanway begins by locating Evans in this stream that I’m discussing; he says: “Evans, like Alan Ecclestone, worked at a time of transition between the marching optimism of John Groser and the grassroots organising of Ken Leech.” and ends by quoting Evans himself: “…there is no such thing as a Christianity which is not an assertion in the midst of the present world order of the life of the resurrection and which is not, therefore, in the deepest of all possible senses, a revolutionary agent in the world.” The pressure of Trump’s America has squeezed diamonds from the carbon of the Church, and Ken’s is the air they breathe.
All this Ken would have understood, then. All this is part of the underground stream which Ken inherited, and deepened, and enriched, and passed on.
Ken died in the Autumn of 2015. When he died there was no Coronavirus, and no Brexit, and no Trump. The resurgence of populism in the Anglophone West, the Brexit vote, the US election which this very evening will see reversed or confirmed - none of this had happened.
But in “The Sky Is Red” the prophet in Ken laid out a programme for those who need to breathe. It’s a programme that, if you like, you can call progressive; but it is clearer-cut that that; it is unashamedly left-wing.
It speaks of values which have been questioned in the nation, and to which the institutional church pays lip service without quite daring to commend. It’s an old-fashioned programme, contended, often opposed, counter-cultural.
In saying that I recognise those who oppose it - for example so-called post-liberalism, Red Toryism, Blue Labour, John Milbank, Giles Fraser, Maurice Glasman. Conversation is good.
But Ken speaks to us from a different part of the rainbow, and for myself I stand where he stood.
I continue to believe, as Rowan Williams says in the introduction to “The Sky Is Red”, that Ken’s is a ‘Necessary Voice’. Necessary, because in a phrase of Dan Berrigan that I use a lot in Liverpool, he calls us to “know where you stand, and stand there”. Necessary because we need to breathe if we are to stand with the resistance to populism and to the marginalisation of the poorest. Necessary because, as Pope Francis has said: “Without the preferential option for the poor, 'the proclamation of the Gospel … risks being misunderstood or submerged’”.
But necessary also because not to do these things will hinder our prayers, will make of our prayers an exercise in cultural nostalgia and in abstract self-improvement, will detach us from God, that is from the true God as God is in Jesus, fully human and fully divine, God who is both more immanent and more transcendent than is usually supposed.
At the moment in the pandemic a good deal of time is spent in the Christian community arguing about the essential nature of public worship in churches, for those who worship or in some more mysterious sense for all the nation. I won’t enter that debate here, except to question a common assumption - that worship must always come before pastoral and social action, that as Ken himself put it, you need “Spiritual resources for the pursuit of justice”.
You certainly do; but that’s not the only way things work. Alongside it I want to say that pastoral and social engagement, standing with the poor and struggling for justice, making a bigger difference, will enable and enliven our prayers and will make our worship truer.
If you pray with the Church of England and follow the Common Worship lectionary for this evening, the evening of this lecture, you will have read a passage from Isaiah 1, in which there’s a half-verse that crystallises what I’m trying to say about breathing, about what in Liverpool we describe as the rule of life that takes us on an inner and an outer journey, called and sent, called to pray, read and learn; sent to tell, serve and give. It simply says this: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice”. God’s justice, the justice to which we are called. Redemption, and justice, and hope; three words in Hebrew, six words in English, a window into the truth of God, a way to breathe and to hold fast.
To be detached from the true God is to be lost - either lost in a hopeless political fury, or lost in the minutiae of religious distinctions. It is to wonder what on earth John Hick and Ken Leech and Lesslie Newbigin and Clare Short might have had in common, because all you want to look at is what they said, and not what they did. It is frankly to live in some cloudy, entitled, middle-class mezzanine world of religious jargon and practice, rather than standing on earth and looking to heaven. From all this Ken can save us by teaching us to breathe.
In my own ministry I’ve tried to stand for inclusion as best I can. I’ve done so because of the way I’ve read the Bible, and because I have seen in the lives of real, imperfect human beings what it means to try to stand for that. And of those human beings Ken is one.
Ken’s journey led him to the edge, to become a community theologian. It led him away from the institution and its systems of honour and control, the kind of honour and control in which I myself am inextricably bound. And Ken’s choices are a standing reproach to the options I have been offered in my own ministry and to the choices I have made. I don’t resile from those choices. But I see them as being rightly under judgement.
And this is not because Ken was an extraordinary man. He was, but that’s not why. It’s because his own extraordinariness pointed to the person of Jesus Christ.
The Lutheran theologian Gordon Lathrop wrote some words which were shared with me by Rick Fabian, the founding co-Rector of St Gregory of Nyssa church in San Francisco, which is the church in all the world where I would go to church, if I could only ever go to one. Lathrop said this:
“Draw a line that includes us and excludes many others, and Jesus Christ is always on the other side of the line.At least that is so if we are speaking of the biblical, historic Christ who eats with sinners and outsiders, who is made a curse and sin itself for us, who justifies the ungodly, and who is himself the hole in any system.”
It is to this Jesus, the breathing Jesus, the One who teaches us to breathe, the biblical historic Christ, the eternal Child of God, it is to this Jesus that Ken’s extraordinariness points. And it is for that reason that I am privileged to remember him tonight.
© Paul Bayes 2020