Kenneth Leech: Prophet and Priest
J. A. Robinson-Brown
The term ‘prophetic’ is applied so frivolously today that one could be forgiven for thinking that the prophetic -- as a gift bestowed upon individuals and communities -- was as widespread as we are led to believe. The Word of the Lord is rare in our day, and visions are not widespread. However, when I think of those characters throughout history or even in the present day who I consider to be ‘prophetic’ in the truest and deepest sense, the list is actually much shorter than most might imagine.
But somewhere between Abraham Joshua Heschel and Eddie Glaude Jr is the name of Kenneth Leech. Fr Leech is someone whose work and thought I only came to know about ten years ago, whilst he was still alive. His work has come to hold a new place in my life now, Fr Leech having gone to his rest and I having become an Anglo-Catholic after 7 years of Methodist Ministry. Those to whom I looked for encouragement and wisdom in the history of Methodism belonged to the bright succession of inimitable Wesleyan clergy, and who, like Fr Leech, sought to grace the political dimensions of our life with the most profound Christian truths – to endow our politics with the visionary and mystical perspective needed lest they exhaust and disillusion us. But unlike the names I may have called up at one time -- Hugh Price Hughes, F. Luke Wiseman, John Scott Lidgett and Donald Soper – Kenneth Leech strikes the bizarre and seemingly impossible balance between the prophetic and the priestly. For Leech, there was no disconnect between the Eucharist and our everyday reality. It was gazing upon God in Christ that enabled him to gaze upon the world and not lose hope. The Eucharist was for him the lifeblood of societal renewal in which we meet and know the God alongside whom we, as those nourished by God’s gifts, worked for the renewal and revolution needed to save the world. As Leech wrote:
‘The proclamation that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, the vision of a transformed society – the Kingdom of God – and the commitment to work with the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ to achieve it, through the power of the Spirit and nourished by word and Eucharist, is the gospel. There is no other.’
Returning to Leech now, there is for me -- as someone Black, Catholic and Queer -- a genuine sense that Leech has paved a way for a priestly body like mine to take up space in the Church of England. His outlook, being truly Catholic, means that he existed as someone waiting expectantly for bodies such as mine to arrive in the life of the Church. Such was his understanding that the one who said in John 12:32 that he would draw all people to himself, truly meant all people and not just some. Quoting, as Leech does, from writers such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, he shows a familiarity with a corpus of Black Queer writing as well as Black prophetic literature and philosophy, engaging as he does with Cornel West’s work – much that would be contested by some as having little to no value to those training for the priesthood in Britain today. For Leech however, this work represented a worldview that obliterated the borders of his own identity and meant that he understood the world in which he lived much more fully than some of his contemporaries. As a seminary tutor, Leech had no need to diversify the curriculum because his own reading was diverse and deep. And is not this -- the obliteration of borders and the awareness of the world’s breadth, --not one of the gifts of ritual and liturgy given not just to us as individuals, but to the entire Church? For Leech, liturgy was the ‘sacramental prefiguring of a liberated world’ and Christian social thought was essentially irrelevant and incapable of embracing the world unless it was rooted in sacramental theology and prayer.
One voice that echoes, rather surprisingly, throughout Leech’s writing is that of Simone Weil, someone equally captivated by the Catholic ritual of the Church. It was Simone Weil who once said that ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’ What penetrates the entirety of Leech’s output is his depth of perception – that he writes as a priest who knows the lay of the land, and who has his finger on the pulse of society. For Weil the quality of this attention, and thus the quality of prayer ,was religious,;it was the fruit of authentic religion – the combination of an intense concentration of desire upon one object, addressed to one person – that which gives one the capacity of attention. We need not know much about Fr Leech to know that as a priest the celebration of the eucharist and the praying of the offices constituted a substantial part of his day. ‘Rebel’, ‘radical’, ‘prophet’, ‘theologian’, ‘priest’ yes – but first and foremost one whose vocation was that of pray-er. Any of us then, tempted to pit the ‘priestly’ against the ‘prophetic,’ are challenged by this impossibility by the life of someone like Fr Leech who seems to draw the connections between altar and pavement seamlessly. In his pursuit of God amongst a world rife with injustice, racism, homophobia and sexism, Leech discovers the universality of God’s love, the incarnational commitment of God to the world, present in broken sacraments at the heart of a broken Church for a broken society. What else but a life built on Eucharist (thanksgiving) could enable a priest to find hope who so often found himself on the frontline of homelessness, prostitution and an AIDS crisis the Church was too afraid to draw close to? Walking alongside those in need, Leech had a sense that God had more to offer the world than what he saw around him. The prophetic task coupled with priestly attention discerns how the alternative that God offers can be brought to birth in the world. We too, in this time, will need to be a mix of the priestly and the prophetic – taking the wisdom of the liturgy into the chaos of the world, finding a space for both silence and parrhesia, protest and prayer, courage and humility. Fr Leech was faithful to his time, and we must be faithful to ours.
Writing in 2003 Fr Leech said: ‘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 Church needs 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 would be well. [Churches] 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. We are probably entering a new desert period, a dark time, in which our own ability to cope with despair and desolation will be tested and purified.’ It can be all too easy to be disparaging about those who are relentless critics of the Church – but these are often the people who love it most, and who remind us that we are not what we will one day be, nor what we pretend we already are. For Leech, the prophetic gaze of God upon the world had to fall often and honestly upon the Church, not just the society in which it existed and this meant that the word of judgement that was true for the world was true too for the Body of Christ. It is hard to ignore that we are in the new desert period, the dark time of which Fr Leech speaks – many are disillusioned, weary and perplexed. Our ability to cope with despair and desolation has probably not, in the living memory of most of us, been as tested as it has been in this COVID-19 pandemic. And our attention, in both the US and the UK has been orientated towards the deep inequalities not only in our society, but more crucially in our Church – inequalities that the privileged and powerful among us have ignored for far too long, but to which Fr Leech drew our attention to time and time again. In the murder of George Floyd, and the publication of the Church of England’s report on racism ‘From Lament to Action’,,,we are reminded that ‘general goodwill’ when it comes to anti-racist work is in fact scarce, and again in relation to human sexuality ‘Living in Love and Faith’ reminds us that we are far from reconciled in our understandings of the ‘other’. The rising poverty and the unequal fatalities amongst ethnic minorities during this pandemic remind us once again of just how far we are from a society in which all lives are valued as equal. But if hope is indeed a piece of work, --and I think it is -- then it seems to me that what Fr Leech shows us in his life and work is that we need to use the best of our Anglo-Catholic heritage as an anchor for a Church setting sail on uncharted and troubled waters. We need, like Fr Leech, a slow-burning long obedience in one direction – a commitment to what he might call a Eucharistic revolution in which we discover how to live out the deepest truths of our baptism in a fragile world. Toni Morrison, a Roman Catholic and someone whose work Leech was no doubt acquainted with, wrote: ‘It is hard not to notice how much more attention has always been given to hell rather than heaven.’ It is liturgy, and a life lived in thanksgiving that gives us the ability to see heaven in hell, to remember God’s promise placed at the centre of our broken world, and to proclaim the unfading truth of our faith – in season and out of season that:
‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’
Between that time and this, what else is there to do, but simply go on doing the slow work of the Gospel as prophets and priests, and trusting in the prayers of the Saints who have gone before us to that place where sacraments and longing cease.
Pray for us unto God.