Kenneth Leech was born into a secular working-class family in Ashton-under-Lyne in greater Manchester. As a teenager he became a Christian and a socialist at the same time. A speech denouncing apartheid at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1956 by Trevor Huddleston, a priest of the Community of the Resurrection who had just returned from South Africa, had a particularly powerful impact on him. He would remember thinking, "If this faith could drive this man to oppose racism with such passion, perhaps it could drive me too."
Leech moved to the East End of London in 1958 when he began his studies for a degree in history at King's College London. This move, he later wrote, was the real turning point of his life. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1961 and then went to Trinity College, Oxford. After theological studies at St Stephen's House, Oxford, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1965. He served in urban London parishes afflicted by poverty and confronted issues of racism and drug abuse. After ordination, he served for two years as a curate at Holy Trinity Hoxton in the East End of London and then from 1967 to 1971 at St Anne's Soho.
While in Soho, Leech set up the Soho Drug Group (1967) which ministered to young addicts, many of whom had been drawn into prostitution. In 1969, at the instigation of and in conjunction with Anton-Wallich-Clifford and the Simon Community, he established the charity Centrepoint which became the United Kingdom's leading national charity tackling youth homelessness. From 1971 to 1974 he was chaplain and tutor in pastoral studies at St Augustine's College, Canterbury. In 1974 he became rector of St Matthew's Bethnal Green where he served until 1979. While at St Matthew's he became deeply involved in the struggle against the National Front and other racist and fascist groups. In 1974, with Rowan Williams (who became the Archbishop of Canterbury) and others, he founded the Jubilee Group, a network of Christian socialists in Britain and across the Anglican Communion, most of whom were Anglo-Catholics. In 1980 he became Race Relations Field Officer for the British Council of Churches Community and Race Relations Unit. The following year he was named Race Relations Field Officer of the Church of England's Board for Social Responsibility. He was director of the Runnymede Trust, a think tank dedicated to promoting ethnic diversity in Britain, from 1987 to 1990. From 1991 until 2004, when he retired from full-time parish ministry, he was community theologian at St Botolph's Aldgate, a church located at the intersection of the City of London and the East End. As archbishop, Rowan Williams awarded him a Lambeth doctorate.
Kenneth Leech was an advocate of contextual theology. As much as he admired the work of academic theologians, he insisted that authentic Christian theology could not be confined to the academy or to the pastor's study. He believed that it must be grounded in prayer and should be the work of the entire local Christian community across the boundaries of class, race and sex. At the heart of his faith was what he called "subversive orthodoxy"; the indissoluble union of contemplative spirituality, sacramental worship, orthodox doctrine and social action. He argued that this conjunction of faith and the quest for justice, which points to the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, is the essential mark of the Christian life and underlies Scripture, the teachings of the Church Fathers and the Christian mystical tradition. His work also drew on the radical and even revolutionary strands in Anglo-Catholicism represented by figures such as Stewart Headlam, Thomas Hancock, Charles Marson, Percy Widdrington, Conrad Noel and Stanley Evans. He respected the contributions of Frederick Denison Maurice, Brooke Foss Westcott, Charles Gore, William Temple and other reform-minded Anglican Christian socialists, but thought them often to be too timid and middle class.
Although Leech was critical of theological liberalism, unlike some Anglo-Catholics he supported the ordination of women and the rights of gay and lesbian people. His publications include guides to prayer and spiritual direction, autobiographical reflections on urban ministry and theological critiques of capitalism and social injustice. Of his weightiest theological work, True God (published in the United States as Experiencing God), the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that "there are few other books that state in so comprehensive a fashion what is at stake in believing or not believing in the God of Catholic Christianity."
Kenneth Leech died in Manchester on 12 September 2015.
- "Stewart Headlam", in For Christ and the People ed. Maurice B. Reckitt (London: SPCK, 1968)
- Youthquake (London: Sheldon Press, 1973)
- Soul Friend: A Study of Spirituality (London: Sheldon Press, 1977; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977) (HarperSanFrancisco; Reprint edition, 1992), (revised edition, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994; Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2001)
- True Prayer (London: Sheldon Press, 1980) (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing; Reprint edition, 1995)
- The Social God (London: Sheldon Press, 1981)
- Essays Catholic and Radical ed. with Rowan Williams (London: Bowerdean Press, 1983)
- True God (London: Sheldon Press, 1985), published in the United States as Experiencing God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985)
- Spirituality and Pastoral Care (1986)
- Silence and Ministry (Oxford: Sisters of the Love of God, 1987)
- Struggle in Babylon (London, Sheldon Press, 1988)
- "Beyond Gin and Lace", in Speaking Love's Name, Homosexuality: Some Catholic and Socialist Reflections (London: Jubilee Group, 1988)
- Care and Conflict: Leaves from a Pastoral Notebook (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990)
- The Gospel, The Catholic Church and the World: The Social Theology of Michael Ramsey (London: Jubilee Group, 1991)
- The Anglo-Catholic Social Conscience (London: Jubilee Group, 1991)
- The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice (London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1992)
- Subversive Orthodoxy: Traditional Faith and Radical Commitment (Toronto, Anglican Book Centre, 1992)
- Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade, edited with an essay on "Some Light from the Noel Archives" (London: Jubilee Group, 1993)
- The Sky is Red: Discerning the Signs of the Times (London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997)
- We Preach Christ Crucified (Church Publishing, 1994, revised 2006)
- Through our Long Exile: Contextual Theology and the Urban Experience (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2001)
- Doing theology in Altab Ali Park (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2006)
- Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech, edited by David Bunch and Angus Ritchie (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2009; New York: Seabury Books, 2009)
- Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech, ed. David Bunch and Angus Ritchie (London: Darton, Longman and Todd), 2009, p. 307.
- Prayer and Prophecy, p. 308.
- "Ken Leech and the East End of London 1958-1998", Jubilee Group paper.
- "Community spirit", The Guardian, 16 June 2004, accessed 5 March 2009.
- Kenneth Leech, Care and Conflict: Leaves from a Pastoral Notebook (London: Dartons, Longman and Todd, 1990), pp. 86-98.
- "The Reverend Kenneth Leech, Anglican priest", obituary in The Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2015.
- Kenneth Leech, True Prayer (London: Sheldon Press, 1980), p. 9; Idem, Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006), pp. 155-56, 215-223; Idem, Through Our Long Exile (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001), pp. 121-135.
- Prayer and Prophecy, p. 7.
- "In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech", Patheos, 13 September 2015.