There is a scene in the 1991 movie “The Commitments” where the lead character, Jimmy Rabbitte (played by Robert Arkins) interviews prospective members of a new band. At each person who comes to his door he flings the question: “Who are your influences?” He judges the musicians on their split-second response. Were I to be asked this same question, Ken Leech would be among the first names on the list.
I first met Ken Leech when he gave a lecture in 1999 at Trinity Cathedral in Portland, a year before I was to begin seminary. Then in his early 60s, he had a rich accent from the North of England and bright blue eyes that occasionally had a little mischief in them, especially when talking about the foibles of British politicians and Church of England higher-ups. Like a good American I fell in love with his accent. More important, though, was Ken’s wisdom and the social critique he always offered laced with generosity of spirit. In his writings and on the North American church lecture circuit, Ken painted pictures of the East End of London as an ethnically diverse area with a history not only of extreme poverty and racial violence, but also of people working together to bring God into the world in ways that mattered. While he did not invent the term, it was Ken who introduced me to the phrase “contextual theology.” As I got to know him I realized he not only wrote about it, he lived it.
Ken was the first speaker I’d ever heard who so eloquently linked, explicitly and implicitly, the inner life of prayer with the outer life of societal transformation. He was fond of telling a story about giving a talk on racism in Chicago, after which someone approached him and said: “People must confuse you all the time with that other Ken Leech who writes books on prayer.” I loved discovering both in one person.
In the modern church, I heard Ken say in that first lecture at Trinity Cathedral, purity manifested itself in the tendency to press every linen to perfection, to polish silver until it shone with God’s glory, and to confuse that tendence with holiness. I recognized that church with its emphasis on beauty and order that had actually made it easy for me to latch onto the Episcopal Church. I recognized myself in the temptation to perfection, the pride I took in a beautifully set table, whether the table was my own dining table or the altar.
Beauty and order, according to Ken, were all well and good if they didn’t lead to exclusion and uniformity, which, unfortunately, they often did. I had been part of too many churches where there was one right way to sing the psalms, one proper form for bowing to the cross, kneeling, ringing bells, or setting up the altar for communion.
“Instead,” he said, “we need mess, chaos, and disorder, in order to get on with the business of being human.”
There he really had me. I recognized myself in mess and chaos, and it was liberating, exhilarating even, to hear someone talk about this, especially as I prepared to become a priest in the church in which he was steeped, and which he so deftly criticized.
Ken talked about a different kind of purity, the unadulterated calling to justice, and all the barriers to that kind of purity put up by organized religion. He reminded us that Jesus did not say “blessed are the peaceful,” but rather “blessed are the peacemakers.”
I was hooked.
In the spring of 2001 when I was ensconced at General Seminary, during his annual Holy Week preaching residency in New York City, Ken visited my homiletics class to talk about the preaching life. We had just finished reading We Preach Christ Crucified, Ken’s book about preaching during Lent and Holy Week, in which he managed to be both inviting and sobering in his reflections on what church leaders might have to say to the world during those seasons. I have read most of Ken’s books, but We Preach Christ Crucified continues to be the one I return to each year during Lent and sometimes in between. Many of the pages are worn through with multiple layers of underlining ink.
When his talk ended, I joined the small crowd forming around Ken in the front of the room, people wanting to ask him a question or ask him to autograph their copies of his books. I had decided in a short time that he was no less than a gift from God. He offered a bigger and different way of being Christian and leading a parish than I had seen. I held a copy of his book but I was so star-struck that I didn’t even think to ask him to inscribe it. As so often happened when faced with people I’d admired from afar, I suddenly got shy. My palms were a little sweaty and I could feel myself blushing.
“Can I have your email address?” I asked hastily, handing him a pen and my book. He wrote it on the back page. (Many of us probably still have firstname.lastname@example.org in our email system.)
“I want to come over there to the East End.” Gulp. “Can I do an internship at your church?” I was glad that the crowd around us had thinned because my voice shook while I asked the question.
I blurted it out without much forethought, but I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the world that Ken talked about in his books and in his lectures. While I knew that his was only a tiny slice of experience that I could find in many places, something drew me to want to learn more about the church in London’s East End. Ken talked about racial diversity, ministries to the poor that made a difference to people’s lives, and that made a difference to the people doing the work as well as the beneficiaries. For Ken, being a Christian naturally meant working for justice and economic equity, usually in the public arena. This was counter-cultural and sometimes subversive. I wanted to walk the streets of the East End which he spoke about; I wanted to be in the place where he advocated for justice and made space for people on the margins.
“We haven’t taken interns for a long time,” he answered, “but do write me and we’ll figure something out.” He blinked his eyes a couple of times in rapid succession the way some people do when they smile, making his face warm and inviting.
We kept in touch, and six months later Ken contacted me and said he had found a priest who was willing to host our family for the summer, a priest who was involved in a program that helped prostituted women and girls. I made plans to follow the call I felt to the East End. It turned out that summer would change the course of my work in the Church from that time forward.
After getting settled in London, I visited Ken Leech at St. Botolph’s, the church where he served as theologian-in-residence. He invited me to meet him for a Wednesday noon mass. I was late to St. Botolph’s, having boarded a tube train that broke down at the next stop. I got out and walked the rest of the way, without a clue where I was going but needing to get out of the hot, crowded station. I had a map and managed to find my way, but I arrived sweaty and annoyed nonetheless. In the hushed sanctuary, an eye-level sign greeted me: Welcome to St. Botolph’s. If our service is already in progress, no worries. Please come join us. I felt better already.
I found the chapel, a low-ceilinged space adjacent to the main church that felt more like a small sitting room than a worship space. Rain-soaked light streamed in through windows tinted in pale green, and etched glass and cherry wainscoting separated the chapel from the larger worship space. A handful of people sat silently in a ragged circle of chairs. Ken blinked his eyes at me, smiled, and welcomed me into the silence with a wave of his hand.
After a few minutes he began the prayers. “We pray for all in authority,” he said, in familiar rote language. “For the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the Bishop of London, for our area bishop, for the Queen, for both houses of Parliament, for our local MPs.” And then he continued: “For St. Anne’s Hospital, and for all who work there. For the workers of the box factory, that their strike may be resolved in a just way.”
And there was more. “For our neighbors who live in Cable Street. For Joanna, who hopes to reconcile with her mother before she dies. For Monique, who is so depressed she couldn’t be with us today but asks for our continued prayer.”
I was used to the standard prayers for church dignitaries and government leaders. I was used to prayers for the dead, and prayers for healing or safe travel. But prayers for a neighborhood or for a labor dispute? Prayers for healing depression, said out loud? Prayers for broken relationships, named, out loud? For me this was a new way of praying, grounded in place, grounded in real people with real problems. Who knows whether God heard the prayers or responded, but one of the things I would take with me from East London was this idea that the prayers of the church included the very real, immediate physical context where the church stood.
After the prayers, we shared a very simple communion service and then went out into the streets for which we had just prayed. I recalled those moments a few years later when I heard Ken give a talk on living a eucharistic-shaped life of blessings and sharing.
Ken walked fast. I had grown up with a stitch in my side trying to keep up with my father, walking up and down the length of Manhattan the way some people walk from their house to the corner store. Ken was like that walking from St. Botolph’s to all the East End places he wanted to show me. But my grown-up legs were longer than Ken’s, and I had no trouble keeping up.
At the intersection of Whitechapel Road and Brick Lane, Ken pointed out his flat overlooking Altab Abi Park in the heart of the East End. He explained that the story of the park could be the story of the East End in microcosm. In the Middle Ages, the East End was a disease-infested swamp. After being settled in the 1600s, the area was for centuries a dumping ground for London’s poor and for immigrants. The park where we now stood was originally the churchyard adjacent to the white brick church from which Whitechapel Road and the surrounding neighborhood took their name. For almost a century, the park was called Itchy Park because of the lice and fleas attending the large number of homeless people who slept there. In 1978, the park was renamed to honor a young Bengali textile worker who was murdered while passing through it, simply, history held, for being foreign. His murder and the park are a single page in the long history of the neighborhood, history always fraught with conflict between races, and between the haves and the have nots. In the East End, however, the haves never had very much.
As anyone who knew Ken already knows, he dressed in black t-shirts in summer and black turtlenecks in winter. He was extremely fond of the animated characters Wallace and Grommet, as well as Shaun the Sheep, and characters from these stories regularly populated his t-shirts, sometimes custom-designed by friends. He’d been a priest since the early 1960s, and I never saw him wearing a clerical collar. If he needed to dress like a priest, he simply donned a long black cassock to cover his t-shirt. He eschewed any trappings of church hierarchy. The only time he wore a clergy shirt and collar, he told me, was if he was asked to testify in court.
“I’d wear my birthday suit if it would help get someone out of jail!” he said once.
A large white handkerchief often overflowed out of his pants pocket, giving him a rumpled, almost disheveled look, although his words were thoroughly organized.
Everywhere was the smell of Bengali spices and incense. Because I was with Ken, every place we went had a story. Here was Cable Street, where race riots in the 1930s began to change the relationship between the immigrant working classes and the London Police. On the side of a grey brick building was painted a multi-colored mural three stories high depicting a many-faceted tableau, a rage-filled mass of conflict between fascists, police, people of color, and white working-class neighbors. It was a chaotic scene that told a story of the East End’s claim on justice. The scene also told story after story of the triumph of mess and chaos over order, and God’s presence in the mess.
Ken Leech first introduced me to the idea of a “public priest,” whose parish, in his case, spanned continents.
After I returned to the states and was ordained to the priesthood, I began a ministry inspired by the sex worker outreach I’d interned with in that summer of 2002. The ministry, Rahab’s Sisters, grew slowly but steadily and after nearly eighteen years is a beacon of radical hospitality and hope for women and gender nonconforming people on the margins of Portland, Oregon, where I live. Over the years as I would waver in my choice between various expressions of ministry, I’d occasionally talk about paring down, cutting back on volunteer work, dropping off this committee or that church board. Ken would always say in a slow, deliberate way as though he were casting a pronouncement on one of the finer points of the Fourth Gospel, “I think it is very important that no matter what you do, you stick with Rahab’s Sisters.”
Ken included me on the occasional letters he wrote to an ever-expanding network of friends around the world, printed in large, bold type and sent by postal mail. In it he kept us all apprised of each other’s work, and regularly asked for prayers for one another’s ministries. Therefore, many people knew about Rahab’s Sisters in Southeast Portland. When my father died in 2005, Ken included that news in his next letter.
He kept a long personal cycle of prayer. He took this very seriously. I recall him telling a story about asked for prayers by someone and replying “I pray for a lot of people every day. I will do my best, but I hope you’ll find someone else.” As ever, marrying the spiritual to the practical.
He visited Portland several times in the first ten years of this decade. In preparation for his first visit he called to ask: “Am I right that you are in Year One of the Daily Office Lectionary? I’ll start using it a few days before I arrive.” I loved that he talked about getting onto the Episcopal Church’s lectionary the way one might talk about getting into a different time zone. For him, praying the Office was indeed the same as living in whichever time zone he lived. I have been grateful for his example ever since.
On one of those trips we drove the length of Oregon, three hundred miles north to south, stopping along the way for him to give talks, so that people in other parts of the state could hear him speak. On his second visit he asked after several people we’d met along the way, remembering their names and their circumstances. He let me know that since our first visit he had been praying regularly for our cats as well as for my husband and son.
I have many such stories about Ken, all formative to me. One I often tell is my first experience of having him preach at a congregation where I was rector, around 2006 or 2007. We had two masses at that church, one at 8am and another at 10am. He spent all week looking at books in my office, making notes on the 5x7 lined index cards he always had with him and talking about how he was thinking and praying about his Sunday sermon. When the time came for the 8am mass, he went to the pulpit, took a tiny slip of paper out of his pocket, and preached a brilliant homily on the Epistle. At 10am, when it came time for the sermon, he turned the slip of paper over and preached an entirely different sermon on the Gospel. He later told me that he'd never preached the same sermon twice on the same Sunday in his life.
These stories sum up Ken to me: his intellect, his generosity, his deep patterns of thought, and his commitment to being fully authentic and present to whichever community he visited.
I saw Ken for the last time in 2013, two years before he died. He was back in Manchester, chipper and chatty as always, eager to hear all about my life, and, as always, our cats. I suspected I wouldn’t see him again. It was a lovely visit and I was able to tell him how much he and his work had meant to me for as long as I’d known him. We had a good visit but what was most memorable was seeing, for the first time, his boxes of file cards. He kept note cards of every book he read and—it seemed sometimes—every thought he had. It was perhaps writing everything down and having those boxes of cards to periodically sift through and organize that gave him his incredible power of recall.
This collection of random reminiscences might remind some people of some of Ken’s talks: it has no particular end, because Ken’s work, his spirit, his thought and very being continues to infuse my work and, I hope, my spirit, my thought and my very being.