Fr Ken Leech and The Jubilee Group
Ken Leech (1939-2015) was a Church of England priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and a Christian socialist. He was born into a working-class family in Greater Manchester, and arrived in London's East End in 1958. His Wikipedia entry is here.
Ken was a prolific author, writing, often authoritatively, on the drug scene, spiritual direction, racism, prayer, social action and urban, or contextual theology. He is credited with forming what came to be known as the Jubilee Group
Ken was a prolific author, writing, often authoritatively, on the drug scene, spiritual direction, racism, prayer, social action and urban, or contextual theology. He is credited with forming what came to be known as the Jubilee Group
- Ken Leech's archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. PDF catalogue here.
- Subversive Orthodoxy: in dialogue with Kenneth Leech by J Brian Bartley
- Audio interviews with Ken by Louise Brody/British Library
With grateful acknowledgement to The Church Times (November 2006)
"AFTER 40 years of innovative urban ministry, the Revd Dr Ken Leech is leaving the East End of London. In that time, the East End has seen as many changes as the Church he has served.
How did it all begin? “I first came to London in 1958, as a student. I lived in Cable Street, in the heart of London’s old docks. There was a Franciscan community there, which had been set up in a former brothel. Cable Street was the red light district of London then. And it was surrounded by the most notorious slum area in London; its destruction in the late 1960s marked the end of an era.
“I became involved with that Franciscan community, and also with a ministry that Fr Joe Williamson was running for prostitutes in the area.”
Did he already have an interest in Anglo-Catholic Socialism when he arrived in London? “Yes. As a teenager, I attended a high Anglo-Catholic parish in Hyde, near Manchester. So
I already identified with Anglo-Catholic tradition, but I hadn’t yet discovered what a diverse tradition it was. I didn’t yet know about ‘gin-and-lace’ Catholicism, the precious and effete side of it. I met it in London, but it didn’t really impinge on me.
“I was influenced by people like Stanley Evans, Gresham Kirby, John Groser — they were old-style Christian Socialists — Communists some of them. They certainly had no time for preciousness.”
He was ordained in 1965: what was his first parish like? “I first served in a very papalist parish in Hoxton. It had the Roman mass, and multiple crossings, in direct imitation of Rome. And then all this was banned by the Second Vatican Council, and I had to unlearn it.
“The parish was like a village parish really, but within London. Everyone seemed to be related to each other. And the Vicar, Kenneth Loveless, was a real character: he modelled himself on the slum priest Fr Dolling. He was like an authoritarian father of the community — he even turned away people who lived outside the parish boundaries, and told them to attend their local church. He was much loved locally. When he died, his coffin was carried through the streets and everyone wept. It was quite bizarre, looking back: another era really.
“When I moved to a parish in Soho in 1967, I came to feel it was all a bit unreal, that tradition. It relied on a model of the church as the centre of the community, which was becoming unrealistic by the later 1960s. Nowadays, those sort of priests who wear birettas and cassocks in the streets seem like leftovers from the past, joke figures almost, though many are good and holy men. But in the 1960s that was still a vibrant tradition.”
IN HIS Soho parish, drug-abuse was a serious new problem, particularly amphetamines. He set up the Soho Drugs Group and subsequently Centrepoint, which not only provided for the needs of young homeless people, but sought to relate their plight to wider social issues. His book Youthquake was an attempt to acquaint his Church with the new challenges of ministry which the 1960s had brought.
In 1974, he moved to St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green. This was a natural home for Ken Leech, for it was here that Stewart Headlam had founded the Christian-Socialist Guild of St Matthew a century before. He now co-founded the Jubilee Group with a few other priests interested in Anglo-Catholic social thought. When the group was drawing up a manifesto, one of the group, who was a chaplain at an Oxford college, sought the help of a graduate student he knew. It was Rowan Williams.
“We didn’t use what Rowan wrote — it was too triumphalist. But we met soon after that, and he became involved over the next ten years or so. I saw him as part of a new generation of Anglo-Catholic theology.
“What brought the group together was a sense that the politically radical side of the tradition was in danger of being forgotten. But the group never defined its socialism. Some were Marxists; many belonged to the Labour Party. There was David Nicholls, who was really an old-style guild socialist, opposed to state socialism. So there was no party line.
“At first, the group was very confident that the Anglo-Catholic tradition was intrinsically radical in its politics, owing to its focus on the incarnation and the Kingdom of God. We gradually admitted that this was only one aspect of the tradition, and probably not the dominant aspect.
“At the time it seemed possible to be both traditional in one’s theology and radical in one’s politics; lots of people who influenced me were like that. But 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.
“The key question is whether you see the Church as the most important thing in Christian faith, or the Kingdom of God. Stanley Evans was arguing in the 1950s that the really important division in the Christian world was between those who thought that the Kingdom of God involved the transformation of this world in some sense, and those who didn’t. Today, I think this divide cuts right across the denominations.
“The so-called radicalisation that happened to the Church of England in the 1980s is a bit of an overstatement. I think the Government was so right- wing that the Church seemed more radical just by staying still. Today, it’s harder to locate, and some of the most radical Christians are of other traditions, like Baptists and Mennonites.”
His ministry included vocal opposition to the far-right groups that lurked in London’s deprived areas. He had already encountered the British Union of Fascists when Mosley stood as a parliamentary candidate in Hoxton. A decade later, the National Front was a constant menace in Dr Leech’s largely Bangladeshi parish in Brick Lane. He was a co-founder of Christians Against Racism and Fascism, and tirelessly warned about the dangers of right-wing fundamentalism taking root in Britain.
During the 1980s, it was clear that Anglo-Catholicism was split over the looming question of the ordination of women. “The Jubilee Group was originally opposed to the ordination of women. Some members felt that it was contrary to the doctrine of the incarnation — women were just the wrong stuff. I was strongly opposed as well, but I was converted when I saw how strongly people like John Saward and Graham Leonard felt about it. I thought, ‘Goodness, if this is the nature of the argument, then we really need to rethink.’ I think those two did more for the cause of women’s ordination than almost anyone else. They said they were like the Greens of the Church — protecting it from pollution. That seems like a dangerous way of thinking.”
Is he surprised that the very traditional Anglo-Catholics don’t go to Rome? “Yes — if Rome is right, they should submit at once. In fact, that question first arose in 1955, when there was a similar furore over the orders of the Church of South India. The issue was that ministers from the Methodist Church and other Churches were incorporated into the Anglican Church without being re-ordained. Some traditionalists were threatening to become Roman Catholics if these orders were recognised by Canterbury.”
Though Ken Leech is a gentle, softly spoken man, his writing has often shown impatience towards the evasions of his Church, and the stifling spirit of compromise that he associates with its establishment. He has consistently advocated disestablishment. In 1993, writing in The Guardian, he called Anglican bishops state nominees: “Charming and pleasant as they are, they bear the mark of the beast.” Leech himself has never been in danger of promotion, even when New Labour briefly made Christian Socialism seem fashionable.
Ken Leech had an indirect connection with Blair: he was a friend of Peter Thomson, who had converted Blair to religious Socialism at Oxford. He rightly predicted that Blair would find “Christian Socialist” an awkward label to wear. He also warned that the Christian Socialist Movement was becoming rather safe: “the religious arm of the Labour establishment”. He has kept up his criticisms of New Labour — he has recently commented that its immigration policy “makes the Tories look liberal”.
Since 1990, Dr Leech has worked as a community theologian at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, on the edge of the City. The post has been sponsored by the Christendom Trust, which normally supports research fellows in universities. This year the funds are running out, and Dr Leech feels that his work there has come to a natural end. He is returning to Manchester after 45 years, with plans for further writing: he is presently working on a book on race for SPCK. The Jubilee Group also looks to be coming to an end in its present form, after 30 years of conferences, pamphlets and campaigning.
And then of course there is Dr Williams — are they still in touch? “We haven’t met since he became Archbishop of Canterbury, but I still consider him a good friend. I do feel very sorry for Rowan. Part of me really hoped he would turn the job down, that he’d say his loyalty was to the people of Wales who elected him archbishop. All the abuse he’s been receiving is hard for him. Particularly because he’s immensely kind — he wants to listen to everyone, hear every point of view.”
Born in 1939 to a working-class family in Greater Manchester, Leech studied history at King’s College, London, and then trained for ordination at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, in 1963. He served in parishes in Hoxton, Soho and Bethnal Green, becoming one of the Church’s foremost experts on the drug culture and related social problems. He also pioneered the Church’s engagement with racism. His espousal of “contextual theology” provided a bridge between academic theology and the Church. Since founding the Jubilee Group in 1974 he has been a leading representative of Anglo-Catholic socialist tradition, and a prolific historian of the movement.
His books include Youthquake (1973), Soul Friend (1977), True God (1985), The Eye of the Storm (1994), The Sky is Red (1997), Through Our Long Exile (2001).
The Jubilee Group From archived copies of www.anglocatholicsocialism.or obtained via 'Waybackmachine
"The Jubilee Group is a loose network of socialist Christians who stand mainly within the Catholic Tradition of Anglicanism, We began in 1974 as a support group for left-wing priests in the East End of London and, over a number of years, grew into a national and international network within the 'Catholic Left'. Historically, our antecedents are groups such as the Guild of St Matthew (1877), the Catholic Crusade (1916), and the League of the Kingdom of God (1922) but, while we look to tradition and the movements of the past for inspiration and nourishment, we seek to relate Catholic social theology to the issues of the 21st century.
We have no membership, simply a mailing list and local groups, and all our literature is 'anti-copyright' that is, anyone is free to reproduce it without permission. Our organization is minimal -- an annual meeting and an executive -- with the maximum amount of freedom and flexibility. We are a tendency rather than an organisation. There is an important anarchist tradition within the network, which produces both a chaotic feel and an ability to adapt quickly. It also leads on occasion to exaggerated claims by others; thus, a briefing to Mrs Thatcher on movements of subversion within the churches in 1980 described us as 'the best-known and probably the most influential of these groups'.
We see that the centre of gravity in the Christian world has shifted, and that neither the divisions nor the areas of convergence/alliance between Christians any longer run along the old confessional lines. Thus, we have found that on many issues we have more in common with the liberation thinkers in the Roman Church or with Mennonites or with the evangelical radicals from Sojourners -- or with non-Christians -- than we have with other Anglo-Catholics. So we are strongly committed to alliances, including those with non-Christian socialists. We are uneasy at the 'churchy' aspects of much radical Christianity and are committed to our work outside the church structures. At the same time, we feel that a deeply rooted Catholic theology and spirituality is essential to us for the sustenance and nourishment of radical action, and are highly critical of liberalism and of the theological reductionism in many 'liberal' Christian circles. We have a strong sacramental thrust and are very strongly socialist, so 'sacramental socialists' would be a good description of our position.
The history and current thinking of the group is contained in Who Will Sound the Trumpet? The Jubilee Group and the Future of the Left (1994, £ 4)."
A People of the Jubilee
from Through our Long Exile; contextual theology and the urban experience, by Kenneth Leech. London, Darton Longman and Todd, 2001
Much of my theological reflection, over the past twenty-six years, has been pursued and circulated through the discussion papers, newsletters and regular updates issued by the Jubilee Group, described as 'a loose network of socialist Christians, mainly within the Anglican Catholic tradition'. The group contains a range of types of socialist -- Marxists (ranging from 'critical Marxists' to fairly orthodox Trotskyists), anarchists, socialist feminists, Labour Party members of varying shades, and many 'unattached socialists', often with passionate concerns for green, monetary justice, peace, and anti-racist issues. The co-ordination of this network takes up a lot of my time.
The beginnings of the Jubilee Group were in September 1974 when I was instituted as Rector of St Matthew's Church, Bethnal Green, and I wrote a letter to a number of friends about the current state of the 'Catholic movement' in the Church of England. We were particularly concerned about 'the renewal of the social conscience of Anglo-Catholicism'. I put these phrases in inverted commas because this was the language we used at the time. In fact, in those years some people were writing of the death of the Catholic movement altogether. As time went on, the idea that the movement was in crisis became widespread.
Yet within a few weeks of our formation, we had moved beyond this concern. Since its foundation, a major part of the work of the Jubilee Group has been the circulation of discussion papers. Indeed, our first discussion paper was David Lake's 'Crisis of Democracy -- which way for the churches', issued early in 1975, and it is fascinating, and at points depressing, to read it in the current climate. The idea of discussion papers grew from a sense that theology needed to engage with ideas in formation, half-baked, still in process of clarification. Discussion papers carry no authority other than that they reflect an author's current thinking, and they are produced for the purpose of response, further debate, and perhaps refutation. They have fallen into three main categories: commentaries on political structures and areas of concern; commentaries on theological issues, with a sub-section of commentaries on current ecclesiastical issues; and reflections on specific events, debates, publications, and so on.
The arrival of the Internet has, of course, made the circulation of this material much easier, and much Jubilee discussion now takes place through the website anglocatholicsocialism.org and the 'Anglican Left' e-group.
We chose the name Jubilee because of its biblical roots, and because it played an important role in earlier Anglican social thinking. I even wrote an article in The Times on the meaning of the Jubilee idea! Few people had any notion what Jubilee meant, or that it had anything to do with the Bible. In the Bible, the fundamental idea of Jubilee is that of release. The Hebrew words which figure in the shabbat (Sabbath) and Jubilee traditions are not tsedeq, (justice) so much as schmitah and dror (release, liberation).
Abandoning control of the earth is at the heart of Jubilee ethics, as is the need for a regular cancelling of debt and setting free of captives. The Year of Jubilee was not once for all. It was very pragmatic, a call for repeated acts of remission and restoration so that injustice and inequality would not accumulate to the point where nothing but violent revolution could change things. The vision of Jubilee, 'the acceptable year of the Lord', was central to both the law and the prophets, and it was the symbol which sparked the ministry of Jesus in his Nazareth manifesto.
The Jubilee network is an anarchic, disorganised, shambolic phenomenon, more like an atmosphere than an organisation. Like all groups which are located at the 'edge of chaos', it is difficult to pin Jubilee down too precisely. That is its strength though it can also be a source of weakness and ineffectiveness. Nevertheless it does seem to fulfil different kinds of needs in different places and at different times, and to have played a number of important roles. We have, through Jubilee, been trying to do collective theology since its formation in 1974, and have done so from the perspective of a 'community'. We have tried to create a network of loving support and solidarity for the 'Catholic left', along the lines suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) when he referred to 'net-works of small groups of friends', or by Cornel West and Bell Hooks in Breaking Bread (1991) when they spoke of the need for 'a community of comrades who are seeking to deepen our spiritual experience and our political solidarity'. West elsewhere emphasises the importance of affirming and enabling 'subcultures of criticism' and we have tried also to take this seriously. Jubilee is not an organisation but a loose network, a word we were using long before Castells and others began to describe our age as a network society. While Jubilee is perhaps primarily seen as a community of solidarity, it also tries to be a community of interpretation, one which seeks to read texts, documents, statements and liturgies in a mutually supportive way and with some kind of shared consciousness.
Through Jubilee too we have tried to develop a form of theological and political reasoning and reflection which is not academic, though it involves academics, and yet does seek to reconnect serious intellectual debate and analysis with commitment, action and struggle at local and national levels. Historically our antecedents are groups such as the Guild of St Matthew (18??), the Catholic Crusade (1916) and the League of the Kingdom of God (1922), but, while we look to tradition and the movements of the past for inspiration and nourishment, we seek to relate Catholic social theology to the issues of the twenty-first century. We have no membership, simply a mailing list and local groups, and all our literature is 'anti-copyright'. that is, anyone is free to re-issue it without permission. Our organisation is minimal -- an annual meeting and an executive -- with maximum amount of freedom and flexibility. There is an important anarchist tradition within the network which produces both a chaotic feel and an ability to act quickly. It also leads on occasions to exaggerated claims by others: thus a briefing to Margaret Thatcher on movements of subversion within the Churches in 1990 described us as 'the best known and probably the most influential of these groups'.
The way in which the symbol of the Year of Jubilee has re-entered Christian action and reflection over the last twenty years has been in marked contrast with the situation in 1974. Since then, both at the level of biblical studies and at the level of popular writing, Jubilee symbol has become a central one. The publication of John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus in 1973 was a turning-point. 1976 the Jewish scholar Arthur Waskow was promoting a 'Jubilee Network' in the USA, complaining of 'the recent split between social and spiritual concerns' and suggesting that the Year of Jubilee was a symbolic way of transcending this split. He noted the interest in Jubilee from a range of groups -- Jewish, Mennonite, Methodist, Anglican, and so on. By 1999, Frank Griswold, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, was calling for Christians to become 'a people of Jubilee'.
Of course, by far the biggest and most politically effective use of the symbol has been in the Jubilee 2000 movement, which began with Martin Dent at Keele University and Bill Peters of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Dent and Peters met in 1990 and launched what became Jubilee 2000. By 1999 it had supporters in over sixty countries. From 2001, two new bodies, Jubilee Plus and Drop the Debt, will take over its work. Little could we have known, when eight of us started the Jubilee Group in a kitchen in Bethnal Green in 1974, that the theme would become so central in the thinking and praxis of Christians and others. As a symbolic frame for theological work, it remains vital with its fourfold stress on setting free the oppressed, the cancelling of debts, the restoration of the land, and the pursuit of all this in a spirit of festivity, symbolised by the blowing of trumpets. It is possible that Jubilee may contain the spark that can ignite spiritual fires capable of bringing about the personal, ecclesial and social transformation that today's world so urgently needs.
As Christians enter the twenty-first century, they do so as exiles, strangers and pilgrims, aliens in a strange land. They will need to learn strategies of survival, and to sing the songs of Zion in the midst of Babylon. The era of Christendom is over, and we need to develop post-Christendom theologies of liberation. For, as Marcia Griffiths reminded us over twenty years ago, our call is not only one to survive in the midst of exile, but to take part in the process of deliverance from Babylon, for we are
steppin' out of Babylon,
one by one.
The Jubilee Group published various pamphlets and papers. If I find any more, I'll post details.
- May Day Mass for Justice and Equality for All People 1 May 2002
- Christ the King and the 'clash of civilizations'. The Jubilee Group Christ the King Lecture 2002 given at St Margaret's House, Bethnal Green, London, on 23rd November 2002 by Tim Gorringe
- Preparing for a new Crusade? Savitri Hensman
- The dispute about Rowan. Jubilee Group Miscellaneous Paper, October 2002
- “Put Not Your Trust in Princes” Savitri Hensman
- Book Reviews from the (now defunct) web.archive.org/Jubilee Group website, via https://web.archive.org/
- The Society of Sacramental Socialists, founded in 2005, says of itself that it is the successor organisation to the Jubilee Group.