A Response to Kenneth Leech’s concept of Theological Wholeness in The Eye of the Storm

October 16, 2007 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

Kenneth Leech’s The Eye of the Storm presents its readers with a rich jumping-off-place for doing the theology of justice – a central theme in Leech’s writings. It also presents readers an opportunity to engage in the ambiguities inherent in any discussion about spirituality in action and the tensions between personal piety and social action. The Eye of the Storm is short on platitudes and heavy on criticism of a comfortable, privileged institutional church that, in Leech’s estimation, is not living into its call to Eucharistic action beyond the liturgy. At his own confession, Leech writes out of a visceral disdain for what he sees as damaging polarities in Christian consciousness over issues of justice and equality, and presents The Eye of the Storm as one argument for the recovery of “theological wholeness,” Leech’s call for the reunification of the sacred with the secular.

Leech roots his discussion in his experiences as slum-Priest in East-end London. His attitudes and opinions are richly informed by the writers and thinker-doers who undergird his personal philosophy. The platform from which he writes, therefore, is of necessity grounded in a time and place, steeped in the particular Anglicanism of the early sixties and as experienced in the crucible of urban parishes in England. This may cause some readers to feel a certain datedness and narrowness to his view. While this may be so, Leech offers a provocative starting place for good and meaty discussions around service and justice ministry. Leech’s ideas about the “recovery of theological wholeness” are formed in the ethos of the radical theologies and movements critical of religion reflected in the Christian church of the 1950s and 1960’s. All of this is important in navigating Leech’s tone and style; this is the context out of which Leech discusses the disconnect he sees in Christian consciousness between the inaction of communal ritual and individual piety, and the action of social justice. “The action of God,” warns Leech “is [as a result] . . . confined within extremely narrow limits,” where the sense of the sacred has ” . . . increasingly shifted from the community to the self” – a self, he argues, that may result in little more than a loose association of individuals locked in an artificial embrace of religious worship.
This paper explores Leech’s observation of a false dichotomy between piety and action in the context of the rediscovery of the Eucharist and liturgical communities in the Church of England in which:
. . . the mass became the central act in these new churches of the poor. And all the pastoral and social outreach to the neighbourhood was seen as flowing from, and back into, the sacramental action. For beneath the sacramental action was the sacramental view of reality: not only bread and wine, but all material things, all created life, were vehicles of the divine.
It is this “flowing from and back into” motion that personifies Leech’s vision of a Eucharistic community at work, both in terms of doing the work of God in its liturgy and in the outward expression of its understanding of what baptismal and Eucharistic theology calls them to do as they “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The paschal feast, in Leech’s opinion, should extend out of a congregation, beyond the confines of a service, as Eucharistic communities ” . . . seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [their] neighbour as [themselves].” This is the tidal metaphor Leech writes of when discussing the virtues of Christian service and mission tied to the breaking and sharing of bread – on ecclesial mountains and in common kitchens: “On this mountain” writes Isaiah “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wine strained clear.” The feast Isaiah envisions is one of richness of quantity and quality, and one to which all are invited to come, without qualification or exception, to a table that does not reflect impartiality. In this new community, Isaiah speaks of all being equal, each receiving his or her share. This image of food sharing is mirrored in the Gospel accounts of Jesus feeding thousands on a hillside without any mention of prequalification or restriction: all were fed. At the “last supper,” Jesus invites each of the disciples (including those who are about to fail him, desert him, betray him) to share the bread and wine. These ritual meals set a standard for what might occur at and around a communal table. They also stand in contrast to the traditions of exclusion that grew around the Christian sacrament of Communion in subsequent years. Closed rituals, Leech argues, distort a sacramental encounter with God’s kingdom: “Does the Eucharist sanctify the past or anticipate the future?” he asks. What occurs at the Eucharistic table informs everything else that occurs in Christian action, and Leech sees a social significance in the “recent recovery of . . . the Eucharist and its relationship with justice [as] far-reaching [in its] significance for the future of Christian spirituality and Christian action.” For Leech, the Eucharist is a second act of commitment, tied to the entrance ritual of baptism, that should be practiced repeatedly as a reaffirmations of what one has received: a new identity in Christ.

There is a sad irony in the tradition of exclusion and privilege that grew out of the Jewish-Christian rituals involving bread and wine. General dining evolved into preferred and private seating with complicated rules and elaborate doctrines over who could and could not eat and drink have resulted, a closed ritual assessable only to the ritually pure, the privileged few. Leech observes a disenfranchisement of the “people of god” who would, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, begin to rediscover their personhood and place in the liturgy at the time of Vatican II in the early sixties where active participation in the Eucharist was reclaimed by those asserting their ‘holy nationhood’, their ‘royal priesthood’ in, what 1 Peter refers to as, ” . . . a holy nation, God’s own People.”

It is at such a rediscovered and reclaimed Eucharistic table, Leech suggests, that parishioners continue to encounter a sense of equality. Through the process of engaging in liturgical renewal, individual parishes discovered themselves as a community of equals where each receives his or her fair share. The Eucharist came to be seen as a paradigm of how we might live “always and everywhere” — a sacramental encounter with God’s kingdom, strengthened, encouraged, empowered, and, for American Anglicans, freed from the Tudor world view inherent in the 1928 prayer book. The sacrament of baptism came to be seen as more than a ritual act of personal piety tied to membership in a religious community, but an act of dedication to a religious and social movement wherein “seeking and serving Christ in all persons” translates into “striving for justice and peace among all people” and “respecting the dignity of every human being.” The breaking of the bread became an expression of this covenant made in baptism, an opportunity to “lift up” hearts in preparation for what is about to occur at and around the communal table: a sacramental encounter with God’s kingdom; a table where all are equal, where, as Leech argues, ” . . . the doctrine of the body of Christ is a powerful weapon in the Church’s struggle against injustice. It is more than a vague sense of fellowship. It is the doctrine of a new creation, a new humanity in which there is neither Jew or Gentile, male nor female, bond nor free.” Everyone, offers Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, stands in God’s bread line. But how does the Eucharist translate into Leech’s “program for social justice,” and what does the Eucharist, according to Leech, teach us of social justice?

There must be an inter-dependence, Leech argues, between the worship of the church and its responsible Christian work in the world. Social ministry is a response to the specific needs of individual people in particular circumstances. Food pantries and shelters, for example, exist to meet the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness and poverty. Social justice, on the other hand, attempts to pick away at systemic issues; it asks the difficult questions of why people – in the long term – can’t afford to buy food or shelter and examines the reasons for lack of opportunity and inequality in access to resources and opportunities. Such efforts look to transforming public policy to be more responsive to human needs becomes and important part of doing social justice, especially in the context of real needs within immediate parish boundaries. Social justice issues almost always involve finances and power systems like politics and government. And herein lies some of the discomfort and the disconnect Eucharistic communities experience when preparing to do justice: some see a clearly demarcated line between what occurs within the confines of the church, and what occurs within the jurisdiction of governments. Leech speaks of this in terms of a moral and spiritual divide, a “two kingdoms theology” in which Christians support an established political without doing so in the context of a ” . . . clearly thought out theological basis: they simply take the easy route, that of inactivity.” The hard work of doing justice, Leech offers, lies in examining the cause of the alienation that leads to injustice; that is why, for many, there is no “consciousness awakening,” no progress beyond a ministry of rescue.

Leech speaks of making this leap in understanding when he writes about coming
” . . . to see all Christian action as an extension of . . . the Eucharist.” Most Christians, he is quick to add, don’t comprehend this at all: Leech devotes a great deal of his energy in warning of those who “. . . speak airily of ‘human liberation’ . . .” while showing little to no practical concern for liberating anyone in particular. Political vision and political struggle, he argues, are to be taken seriously. This may be disquieting for those who see the “seeking and serving” Baptismal / Eucharistic responsibility as little more than filling an appointed shift at the parish food bank – or writing a cheque for the support of a local shelter. Leech asks the harder question of “And then what are you going to do?” And this brings into focus the larger question of social justice in which self-sufficiency is the by-product of ethical systems that provide equal access and promote fairness. Here Leech argues for unification of the pieties of theological reflection with the virtues of social struggle.

Leech’s early ministry in London’s Soho of the late sixties and the founding of the now multi-million dollar efforts of Centrepoint reflect his commitment to preaching and practicing. This ‘success’ for Leech, however, is not an achievement: “I am appalled that [Centrepoint] is still necessary – it’s depressing because homelessness in the 1960s was solvable.” Leech laments what has become of Centrepoint and community organizations like it: “I can count 600 paid workers, but I know by name the people sleeping rough in the park . . .” National inattention to the root cause of homelessness, Leech argues, is bolstered by rescue missions like Centrepoint.

Working for justice, then, requires effecting a much deeper level of change within society in how it operates, how it’s structured and how it develops public policy. The hard work of identifying and reversing practices that cause one group of people to be alienated from another by privilege or status comes through the co-mingling of social ministry with social action. And it is the Eucharist, Leech contends, that calls us into this extended community, one which personifies the body of Christ in action.

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Entry filed under: Anglican, Human Rights, Justice.

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