I remember the first time I saw St Matthew’s Bethnal Green. It was 2008. I was still an evangelical and slowly detaching (or deconstructing, if you will) — and was doing some visiting on a local housing estate for a teen girls’ activity club that ran on Saturdays. The Granby Estate is not objectively beautiful, but it’s far from east London’s worst. From the east-facing windows, a view of the church and its churchyard was offered me. I asked my colleague, with whom I regularly spent Thursday evenings visiting our girls’ club families, if she knew anything about it.
‘Not really,’ she said. ‘I think they’re a more traditional church.’
And that was that.
Fast forward 8 years, and I was being ordained a deacon, then priest, as a curate in this same parish. Two and a half years after this, after a short vacancy, I was appointed Rector of the parish, and I have been here since.
Just before my ordination training — that surreal three years spent as a ‘mature student’ in Cambridge, feeling constantly like a fish out of water — I had discovered Stewart Duckworth Headlam, curate of St Matthew’s during the 1870s. I can’t remember how I discovered him: it was in the pages of some tome on Anglican ritualist socialism and the Oxford Movement. As an American midwesterner who grew up in small evangelical ‘holiness movement’ churches, in many ways the Church of England, especially its catholic wing, was impossibly foreign to me. And yet I was drawn to the sacramental tradition: its space for wrestling, its insistence on the goodness of the body, its rituals and its persistence.
I remain fascinated by the Christian socialists — not only because many of them were also high-churchmen, but because they seemed gripped by this dual, idealistic zeal for the gospel and for the socialist transformation of society: apocalyptically so, at times. Victorian urban poverty being what it was, there was an unmistakable urgency to the church’s mission to announce ‘good news for the poor and freedom for the captives.’ Headlam, it seemed, was very good at being on the sharper end of some of the debates about just what this good news and freedom really meant for those whose life began and ended in the slums of old Bethnal Green.
Headlam regularly ran afoul of those in authority– especially church authority – for supporting boxers and ballet-dancers, befriending political rabble-rousers and atheists, and working with trade unionists — especially women. Unlike many clergy of the day, he actually lived in the parish itself, rather than choosing to dwell in a more genteel part of town befitting his wealth. He was dismissed from his curacy at St Matthew’s by the Bishop of London, for what is usually assumed to be a mix of his unwillingness to shut up about socialism and poverty, and for a notorious lecture which praised music halls and theatres — quite offensive to the prevailing winds of Victorian Christian sensibility. After 3 more brief posts of a year or two at most, he was never given a parish again.
I have a habit of naming objects, naming places. My room at theological college became, to the amusement of the administrative staff who sorted out college post, Duckworth Corner, after Headlam’s middle name.
Ken Leech was Rector of St Matthew’s in in 1970s. A century had passed since Headlam’s presence there, but at least the Rectors of St Matthew’s now lived in the parish they served.
Victorian poverty had meant workhouses. Overcrowded, shoddily built accommodation. On one edge of the churchyard, a slaughterhouse and a morgue were side-by-side with the church school, and the smell of both wafted over the workers’ cottages, adding to the already appalling air quality from thousands of coal fires, in homes and factories. The Luftwaffe had done their best to flatten Bethnal Green in the air raids of 1941. By the time the 1970s rolled around it was slowly refilling with midcentury estate blocks — what I learnt not to call ‘the projects’ — shoddily built accommodation once more, but this time with indoor plumbing.
1970s poverty meant waves of immigration from south Asia, and the ensuing backlash from racist political organisations in the UK, particularly the National Front. The East End had always been a place of immigration, its docks full of workers and families from around the area arriving with next to nothing. French Huguenots in the garment trade. Chinese dockworkers. Jews from every corner of Europe. Now Pakistanis and Bengalis. The air quality worsened now by over-full dual carriageways full of trucks passing from docks to city. It was a tense time, with regular violent clashes and racially motivated hate crime.
Into this ferment came Leech, fresh out of working with homeless youth and adults in Soho, where he’d founded the charity Centrepoint, which exists to this day. Still a ‘bright young thing,’ only 5 years a priest. Publishing books on theology, drugs, youth culture and pastoral care, he must have seemed like quite a catch for this scrubby East End parish. He spent 6 years here.
A bomb fell on St Matthew’s on the first night of the blitz, 1941. The stone plaque in the church porch commemorates it as ‘enemy action’ in which the roof was blown off. The 6-foot-thick walls stood firm. I have pictures of open-air masses in our archives. It took until 1961 for the rebuild to be finished, and the new church to be reconsecrated. One of my elderly parishioners tells the story — though she can’t remember the event herself — of her baptism here as an infant, ‘before they put the roof back on.’
St Matthew’s was a difficult place to land for Leech. He was regularly being threatened by fascists. He had to contend with the long shadow of the recently-imprisoned Kray brothers — local lads turned crime bosses during the 1950s and ‘60s. St Matthew’s has never been an easy parish, its services rarely well attended.
Headlam, recognising the issue of nonattendance, had begun something he called The Guild of St Matthew. It was (or so Leech later claimed) the first actual socialist group in England, before any party or other political socialist groups formed. The Guild was obviously a vicar’s creation: how do you get folks to take part in the sacramental life of the church? You blend together altar serving and socialising with political activism, of course. Why not tear down ‘secularist prejudices’ against the church and ‘promote the study of social and political questions in the light of the incarnation’? And if you could do all this primarily with and for the working classes…well then, that was missional gold.
The degree to which the working classes got on board — with the guild or anything else Headlam did in Bethnal Green — was limited. While researching Headlam as an ordinand I found myself enthralled by Jon Orens’ biography, The Mass, the Masses and the Music Hall. Orens had to admit — as did I — that although Headlam believed strongly in the church’s ability to appeal to the urban poor beyond just baptisms, weddings and funerals, this belief was not ultimately borne out in the widespread conversion of the East End to Anglo-Catholic worship and parish life.
When Headlam was instructed to leave St Matthews, the guild went with him. By this time it had become a fully-fledged network with nearly 400 members, with chapters in sympathetic churches across England. There was not a chapter at St Matthew’s, and Headlam dissolved the Guild in 1910, after a split in the membership over which party and platform to support.
Recently on Twitter, a priest colleague of mine offered to show me a photo of the banner in his parish which commemorates their chapter of the Guild. It was in response to a tweet I sent out, encouraging joiners to our altar server team, which we have this year renamed the Guild of St Matthew.
"The Church of England in the East End of London is first and foremost an instrument of social control." --Leech, Struggle in Babylon.
When Leech was at St Matthew’s, he celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the Guild of St Matthew with a new organisation he’d founded, the Jubilee Group — a small network of Anglican clergy (and some laity) in the catholic tradition. The group published papers and essays, held gatherings and lectures, prayed for and attempted to resource one another’s ministry. I came across their pamphlets in the dusty Library Annexe of Westcott House, my theological college. Rowan Williams, the much loved former Archbishop of Canterbury, had been a Jubilee Group member. My favourite of their pamphlets was one from 1995 entitled, Mary, Mother of Socialism.
Within any expression of Anglo-Catholicism, there is always a danger of a slide into eccentric clericalism. Leech recognized this tricky dynamic, telling the Church Times, ‘... over time I’ve become much more wary of some of the traditionalist strands in Anglo-Catholicism, which I think belong to an early stage of the movement.’ In more than one pamphlet for the Jubilee group, Leech warned of the importance of not letting Christian socialism become only the domain of those who held to a specific Anglo-catholic ‘confessing agenda’ — whether than was around a particular way of inhabiting a sacramental tradition, or an attachment to Roman Catholic views on the ordination of women.
Westcott House does not hold Headlam’s papers and pamphlets — those rather more fragile historical documents are held in the Cambridge University Library. As an ordinand I petitioned for access because of my research and was granted it. Never had I been permitted to go to an archive before, with its freezing temperatures, special gloves, dim lights. I untied the pamphlets gingerly and made dozens of pages of notes.
Headlam’s marriage was short-lived. He married Beatrice Pennington in 1978, and the marriage was annulled soon after. She, it turned out, was a lesbian. Headlam himself was part of the group, years later, that bailed Oscar Wilde out of jail.
One of Leech’s most interesting essays — to me, at least — is a reflection on how Anglo-catholicism became a safe space for closeted gay men in Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the failures of the church towards gay men and lesbians, which he thought were both pastoral and theological. It’s called Beyond Gin and Lace.
A few years ago my friend Leah, an artist and historian, was leafing through the file cabinet in the basement of the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, which then held Ken’s archived papers. The Royal Foundation is in Wapping, about two miles from St Matthew’s.
She found papers from the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, which was founded at St Botolph’s without Aldgate church, during the time Leech was in Bethnal Green. It’s in the parish of St Matthew’s. Leech presided over the ‘Exodus service’ when the LGCM were forced to leave St Botolph’s and resettles in Oxford House, an old Victorian university settlement building in St Matthew’s parish. They were there from 1990-2015.
A concerned parishioner came to speak with me a few months ago. He had spoken to an older member of the congregation who was feeling frustrated with church, and wanted to relay this conversation. Fully expecting frustration after a year of pandemic, I asked what in particular the person was upset about. It turned out that they felt their voice wasn’t being heard by the rector, and that there were too many new people in church. The question was asked: wasn’t a few new people showing up at church a good thing?
‘They’re probably all gay,’ was the response.
(I should note: not all, but many, are.)
The Christian Church is intended to be a society not merely for teaching a number of elaborate doctrines, not even for maintaining a beautiful ritual and worship but mainly and chiefly for doing on a large scale throughout the world those secular, socialistic works which Christ did on a small scale in Palestine. -- Headlam, Christian Socialism.
St Matthew’s was Ken Leech’s last incumbency. After leaving here, he went on to be Race Relations Officer for the British Council of Churches, director of the Runnymede Trust (a group founded to promote and support ethnic diversity across society in Britain), and ‘Community Theologian’ at St Botolph’s without Aldgate. His passion for contextual theology meant that he got up to plenty of what any priest might term ‘ministry’, I’m sure, but he was not a parish priest ever again.
He wrote, and wrote, and wrote. His books on spirituality, theology, urban ministry, homelessness and addictions have been formative for generations of Church of England ordinands, clergy, and laity, especially those of a more sacramental persuasion.
I can’t help but wonder: what does it mean that he never returned to a parish as its priest? That he walked away from parish ministry towards no less important ministry, as a contextual theologian, writer, campaigner, and convenor of change?
What does it mean that for Headlam, the Guild of St Matthew’s existed everywhere but the parish where it was founded? Is this place a place where good things begin and expand, and then leap away, away, away, leaving us as small and quiet as before? Or are their stories each a more complicated exodus?
Just prior to the covid-19 pandemic, we started a foodbank at St Matthew’s. It went from 15 people to 400+ households in six months; it then moved to a local secondary school that had been permanently shut, with much better facilities. An initiative, born here, growing up and walking away.
I was mentoring a young black woman considering ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England. She stepped back for a while from considering ordination, at least partly because being a black priest in the Church is incredibly costly, especially right now. She had just finished a job she’d held for several years, working at Ken’s homelessness charity, Centrepoint. She knew who Leech was, but not that he’d gone on from there to do years of work on racial justice.
After leaving St Matthew’s, and after his subsequent 3 brief posts in other London parishes, Headlam was involved with various social, political and educational organisations of his day. He sat on the London Schools Board for decades along with the London County Council. He was involved with the Fabian Society, and campaigned for radical reforms in land ownership. He is perceived as a radical, influential, but these days relatively little-known figure in church and educational history in Britain.
Stewart Headlam School sits just outside the parish boundary of St Matthew’s. It’s a two-form entry state primary school. They come to visit St Matthew’s, sometimes. The Year 2 curriculum has a unit on ‘special spaces’ for different faiths.
When the children come to visit, I get out the silver, the bells, the incense, the bibles, the kneelers. I wear my cassock and turn on the sound system so my voice booms. I send them off to the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the pricket stands, the one stained glass window we inherited from another bombed-out church. When their teachers ask them to draw things, they often draw Jesus on the cross. They often draw tears streaming from his eyes.
…the Christian Church [...] ought to be the great agency for human progress in religion, politics, society, customs and institutions.
-- Headlam, Priestcraft and Progress.
While digging out photos from our archive to accompany this piece, I found a piece of material I’d never seen before. It was hidden under the old drapes which were part of the 1950s refurb, in the bottom drawer of a cabinet. I asked my colleague to help unfold it and found myself cackling with delight — it was a processional canopy in pristine condition, all red and gold silk brocade with velvet details and symbols appliquéd in matching colors. I had known we had a beautiful humeral veil, but this canopy was a new discovery.
It is too simplistic to say that what Bethnal Green needs, either the church or the area in general, is more processions, more elaborately appliquéd church furnishings, more nostalgia sung in a Victorian key. But, with certainty, what it does need is more of the visible presence and action of Christ. Perhaps processions of worshipping, praying, celebrating people are just one part of what helps bridge the gap between that presence as an esoteric concept — or even, we might rather wish to say, a spiritual reality — and a force for good, radical, inviting change in this world.
Perhaps parades of joy — God is in our midst, celebrate! — do have a part in changing the world, in moving ever slowly in the direction of the Kingdom.
It must have been a heady time for a ritualist — the 1870s. The Oxford Movement, long past its heyday but still influential in the church, had resulted in great catholic red brick barns popping up all over the place in a church-planting frenzy. The strong liquor of socialist theory was mixing with confident Victorian Christianity, intoxicating many. For Headlam, it seemed, it called him away from where he’d begun his life. The son of an evangelical preacher, a student at the elite private school Eton, Headlam spent much of his life denouncing evangelicalism and ‘the rich.’ The moral philosophy he’d learnt from F. D. Maurice at Cambridge became his practical theology.
Leech — more properly a practical, contextual theologian — of course had the benefit of history: seeing the faults and crashes of socialist experiments across the 20th century made him a more cautious proponent of Christian socialism, but no less a radical in his own way. He saw Black and Latin American liberationists as true inheritors of Christian socialism, though not all of them would share his churchmanship.
Practically speaking: Anglo-catholic ritualism is a complex way of worshipping, and to achieve the full and transcendent effect of it, the beautiful spectacle, you really need a sizeable altar party. So I get the need for the Guild, at its heart a means of drawing more people towards meaningful engagement with the sacrament, not only as receivers of it, but servers, as co-workers, of the sacred Table. The mass is the dress rehearsal for the rest of life. If what we do around this table is the fount of the sacramental nature of reality itself, then it absolutely follows that those who serve at the altar would be those who also join the picket lines, sign the petitions, join the campaigns.
Our altar servers are a ragtag bunch of mostly under-18s, though we’re working on getting a bit wider of an age range. I haven’t got any of them to a picket line yet, but the way that they talk about what excites and concerns them about the future of their lives, of London, and of the world — I think they’re far and away some of the most radical members of the congregation. Environmental issues, fair access to healthcare, justice for women and black people, and what on earth Jesus has to do with all of the above, are topics regularly on their lips.
What do I want to say about these two men? Headlam and I were both Curates here, at St Matthew’s; Leech and I share the title of (sometime) Rector of Bethnal Green. Maybe that is enough to say — that we share something, the full nature of which is yet to be revealed. I do not think of myself as the inheritor of an unbearably weighty tradition, a complicated cultic practice. I am simply required to show up at the altar, say the mass, teach the faith, hold silence for the immensities of life in this fraught time.
Nicola Slee and David Ford write of our present era as one of ‘multiple overwhelmings’ that requires a lived theology, a praxis of faith, that can endure and attend to them. That can keep faith. I think that Headlam and Leech had their own sets of multiple overwhelmings, their own attempts — by turns brash and thoughtful — to live in a faithful, if overwhelmed, way. Bethnal Green has changed a lot, but there is still much here that does not bear resemblance to the kingdom of God. There still exists all the stuff that Leech and Headlam cared about changing: racial injustice; rigid class structures and hierarchies; poor housing and bad air; homelessness and addiction; the marginalisation of artists, queers, and people of faith. There is nothing new under the sun — and perhaps brashness and thoughtfulness are just what is needed in this era, as it was in theirs.
I hope that now the pandemic restrictions are tapering off, we can have our first Guild of St Matthew social event here, for altar servers and their families, before the end of 2021. Maybe on or around the Feast Day of St Matthew in September. Maybe we’ll make a banner, or have a procession. Maybe we’ll talk over orange squash and digestive biscuits about what’s wrong in the world that we’d like to see God’s Holy Spirit make right. Maybe we’ll play some music hall tunes and dance.
East London, England