Kenneth Leech

Community Theologian at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, London. In 2008 the Trust made a grant to the Centre for Contextual Theology to digitalize Ken Leech’s archives. [website]

 KEN Leech has fulfilled a unique role in the East End of London as a Community Theologian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of social critique and action. His main areas of work have been pastoral care in the drugs scene, homelessness, and racism in the ethnic mix of the East End. Several important and widely read books have come out of this work, while for ten years, one third of his funding was given by the Christendom Trust.

Doing Theology in the Urban Context

Report to the Christendom Trust

Ken Leech

FOR the last thirteen years I have been employed as a ‘community theologian’ based at an East London church. When we envisaged the project in 1990, we did not know whether funding would be possible. Doing theology in Whitechapel Road did not seem to be very ‘fundogenic’. Fortunately the Christendom Trust came to our aid.

The Christendom Trust has been my primary funder throughout this time. Without the Trust we cold not have kept going. While the Diocese of London, in the days when David Hope was bishop, allowed me to occupy a vacant flat in Whitechapel – which provided the space and became their contribution to the work – the funding of the project has been based on grants and donations. Without the core grant from Christendom, we could not have functioned at all. Of course, there were other sizeable contributions – some of which wish to remain anonymous – but the vast majority were, and are, small amounts from individuals, parishes and small groups. The need to supplement the Christendom grant has meant that I have had to take accountability seriously, and to document regularly what I have been up to. This has been good for me and also for the work.

There is no doubt then that the involvement of the Christendom Trust has been crucial in the support of the work. I have only one criticism of the Trust. Since the death of David Nicholls, who was a most diligent attender at the meetings of my Support Group, no Christian Group representative has ever appeared. This has been sad, and may be something the Trustees could think about. But this is not in any way to downplay what I have said above and below.

The future of the work here lies in hands other than mine. It could be that they will approach the Christendom Trust for help. But, whether this is true or not, it is important to stress that, had it not been for the Trust, this work would not have happened. This is, of course, a sad commentary on the diocesan structures of the Church of England. It never even occurred to me in 1990 that we should go for financial help to the Diocese of London, and I think this was realistic and right. But what is this saying about the Church of England? From time to time, the Trust has said that we should bring pressure on the Church to take responsibility for creative work. If it has happened, it has been a waste of time. This confirms my view that most innovative work begins on the ‘periphery’, though it may be praised and claimed by the ‘centre’ if it is successful. This too has happened.

I don’t want to boast about my work here. In some areas it has been a failure. Yet some things have occurred which have, I think, made some small difference to the world. Some important writing has been done which could not have occurred had this space not been provided. The freedom to travel in the UK and beyond it has had some important effects. In terms of global impact, I would say that Christendom should be aware of these facts.

  • Several major books have been produced as a result of this project. Care and Conflict (1990) launched the work. The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice (which won the Harper Collins Religious Book Award in 1995); We Preach Christ Crucified; Politics and Faith Today; The Sky is Red: Discerning the Signs of the Times (1997, new edn 2003 – described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘a necessary book’), Drugs and Pastoral Care; Through Our Long Exile: Contextual Theology and the Urban Experience (2001), were all produced during the time of, and as a result of, the Christendom-funded work.
  • Although my links with urban work in the USA began when I was a parish priest in Bethnal Green in 1978, it has been during the years of the Christendom grant that the links have become more important and creative.
  • There is no way in which I could have produced work on racism and on drugs policy – a good deal of which is still to come – if I had not had the space and time provided by the Trust.
  • In recent years a kind of global Anglican urban network has emerged, encouraged and urged on by Andrew Davey at Church House among others. I have today come from a consultation at Spurgeon’s (Baptist) College on the future of urban contextual theology in London, and arrived back home to receive a report of a consultation of Anglican contextual theologians held at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. last month. Of course, none of this is the direct result of the workd here, but I think I can say, humbly and truthfully, that the work which Christendom funded has helped to create a climate in which this kind of theological work is taken seriously, not least by academic theologians.

So I am profoundly grateful to the Christendom Trust and to dear Maurice Reckitt, its founder, whom I remember with affection.

5 June 2003

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