Bruce Kent, who died aged 92, was Britain’s most controversial Catholic priest of his generation. To his critics, his high-profile involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament during its revival in the 1980s was inappropriate behavior for an ordained member of a church who accepted arguments for nuclear deterrence. To his admirers – and they far outnumbered his detractors – he was a prophetic and charismatic figure who almost single-handedly shook English Catholicism from its complacency, studied moderation and the instinctive avoidance of all things political.
See Monsignor Kent exorcising the Polaris nuclear submarine base at Faslane on Scotland’s west coast, or leading protests on Greenham Common, Berkshire, against the deployment of US cruise missiles, or allowing ushers to seize his few earthly possessions rather than pay with his taxes for the proliferation of nuclear weapons was a powerful reminder that the Christian gospel is a social and radical gospel.
One of the ironies of the fierce campaign against Kent by self-proclaimed God-fearing Tory MPs, MI5 and the Vatican’s diplomatic representative to Britain, Bruno Heim – who in 1983 called him a “useful idiot “doing the Soviets’ dirty work for them – was that the subject of their fury was such a gentle man. Kent was no firebrand and even when confronted and abused by his detractors, he was emollient. He followed the oft-cited but notoriously difficult in practice example of Christ by turning the other cheek.
That didn’t mean, however, that he wasn’t passionate about his beliefs or effective in getting them across. He may have been lucky with his timing. When he took up his duties as secretary general of the CND in the early 1980s, it was almost moribund, with only 3,000 paying members.
Within months, the government’s twin announcements of a £5billion scheme to replace Polaris with Trident and Cruise’s Greenham accommodation plans revived the organization.
In November he addressed 80,000 supporters in Trafalgar Square and the following year 250,000 gathered in Hyde Park.
A gifted orator with natural authority, Kent was both adept as an administrator and a tactician, successfully countering Trotskyist efforts to infiltrate the various CND leadership councils and averting the splits that had crippled the organization. during its first incarnation in the late 1950s.
One of the most telling compliments for Kent came in December 1982 from Denis Healey, the deputy Labor leader and no fan of CND policies. He had, Healey said, “achieved the most impressive victory for single-issue politics in recorded history.”
The Catholic hierarchy watched all this from the outside with growing unease and quite a bit of envy. Cardinal Basil Hume, who had authorized Kent to assume his role as CND, gave him plenty of leeway and defended him against his accusers. But Hume, for all his monastic worldliness, had great respect for the men in Ministry of Defense uniforms, and Kent sensed his discomfort with the situation.
With the 1987 general election approaching and the nuclear issue back on the agenda, Kent felt he had no choice but to leave the priesthood if he was to continue speaking out against the threat that weighed on the world. Hume made the right noises, but agreed a little too easily for some.
For Kent, February 11, the day of his retirement – he would never use the global resignation, even though it was clear he would not return – was one of the worst of his life. He wept as he broke the news to those in the church who had supported him, and many wept with him. “I knew, he would write later, that I no longer corresponded to the priesthood as the others saw it.
Bruce was born in London in the comfortable world of Hampstead Garden Suburb, the son of Molly (née Marion) and Kenneth Kent, who ran the UK branch of American manufacturing company Armstrong Cork. At church dances, Bruce dated a young Antonia Pakenham, later Fraser, whose parents belonged to the coterie of Labor politicians living in the area. The Kents, however, were more conservative in their political leanings.
Bruce’s parents were Canadian, and for three years during World War II, he and his brother and sister went with their mother to Canada. She was a devout Catholic, and when they returned Bruce went to Stonyhurst University in Lancashire, the Jesuit school that rivaled Ampleforth to be the Catholic Eton. “It took me, he says, another 20 years at least to realize how effectively I had been treated for the life and values of the English establishment.”
And his life thereafter was at first conformist. He spent two years in the army, then went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he graduated with a law degree in 1956. However, he had long had an interest in the priesthood and, after overcoming opposition from his non-Catholic father, he was ordained in 1958. Again he did not rock the boat, and after a few years of parish work, in 1963 he became principal secretary to Cardinal John Heenan, Hume’s predecessor as a Catholic leader.
His duties were many and varied, from hand-delivering rosaries to a maid at 10 Downing Street, attending Winston Churchill’s state funeral with his boss, and dealing with violent mood swings from the unpredictable and selfish Heenan. Although after two years their relationship had become strained, particularly due to Kent’s growing radicalism, sparked by the Vatican’s intransigence on the issue of artificial birth control, Heenan still trusted his assistant enough to appoint him. Catholic chaplain at the University of London.
During his tenure (1966-1974), Kent came of age. In no particular order he discovered ecumenism, abandoned any idea that the priest was in charge and the laity obediently followed in his wake, was compelled by students’ questions to question the Church’s traditional antipathy to sex , and involved himself more and more deeply in the fight for a better world.
It had started soon after his ordination when he agreed to be chaplain to Pax Christi, the small British branch of the international Catholic peace movement, but it blossomed during his time at the University of London. He has been involved with CND, with the campaign against the arms trade and with War on Want.
He traveled to Biafra and India and saw first hand the damage wrought by Western wars and weapons there. And he began to criticize his own church for its head-in-the-sand attitudes. His letter to The Times in October 1967, attacking the Catholic Navy chaplain for blessing the launch of Polaris, was the start of his national reputation – and of the controversy that followed.
Heenan was horrified by the change in Kent and the two clashed on several occasions. Other more established figures, high officials who had been to Stonyhurst or Oxford with him, saw him as a traitor. However, the Cardinal’s death in 1975 and his replacement by the less confrontational Hume effected a sort of reconciliation between the Archdiocese of Westminster and its rambunctious priest.
It was especially the remarkable Victor Guazzelli, one of Hume’s auxiliary (or assistant) bishops, who did most to keep Kent in the fold, appointing him parish priest of St Aloysius, Euston, in 1977 but leaving him enough space to continue working in the peace movement. Like Kent, Guazzelli drew inspiration from the 1971 Synod of Bishops of Rome, which taught that the gospel “has the power to set us free, not only from sin, but from what sin has done to our society.”
When Kent took on the role of General Secretary of the CND, work pressure forced him to give up his parish, although he continued to live and say mass at St John’s in Islington. Those were heady years. His face was rarely on TV screens, forever defying the Cold War premise.
He argued that the Warsaw Pact countries posed little or no threat to the West, that the Soviet Union was in internal crisis and therefore unlikely to attack, and that deterrence could never work because it involved the will to strike first.
History, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, has proven him right: it was only with the Russian invasion of Ukraine that much thought was given to the nuclear conflict. But at the time, Kent was yelled at by anyone from Tory minister Michael Heseltine to the fanatic who fired a firebomb at him (thankfully intercepted).
After leaving the priesthood, Kent continued to work in the peace movement. He had a brief Indian summer as a commentator during the 1990 Gulf War, but his profile declined as the nuclear argument faded to the top of the political agenda. He stood as a Labor candidate at Oxford West and Abingdon in 1992, but was already seen as too leftist by many in the Labor hierarchy.
Professionally, it was a sin that his tremendous energy and intelligence were never subsequently called upon by a Catholic church stubbornly unwilling to leave the past behind. However, if his last years were calmer than before, they were also much happier. In 1988, 14 months after retiring from priesthood, he married Valérie Flessati.
Through his work with Pax Christi, they had known each other for several years, but both were keen to emphasize that she had nothing to do with his turning his back on Holy Orders. Indeed, she didn’t even know he was actively considering such a move. Because he continued to consider himself a priest and never asked Rome to be secularized, the couple could not marry in church, but their union was nevertheless very blessed, founded on a a shared commitment to peace and justice, a gospel-based Christianity, and a pure pleasure in having had the chance to find each other.
She and her sister Rosemary survive him.