New Forest East



The Independent Online – 19 June 2022

By Hugh O’Shaughnessy

Bruce Kent, who has died aged 92, was for decades one of the brightest stars in the Catholic firmament in Britain, helping the church out of a period of stifling and self-regarding clericalism and towards a concern for global problems, notably the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Kent was born in Blackheath in 1929, the second of three children to Kenneth, a Canadian Presbyterian businessman, and his Catholic wife Mollie. In 1940 his mother and the three children went to Canada for safety, returning in 1943. Bruce and his brother were sent to Stonyhurst, the Jesuit-run public school in Lancashire. He very slowly came to love a place where the ethos was piety and the rule was flogging.

In October 1947 he started his two years of national service during which he was commissioned in the Royal Tank Regiment. During that time his interest in ordination was awakened by the powerful Jesuit preacher Father Joseph Christie. Kent realised that

"the best way I could live my life and bring truth to the world and good news to the poor was to become a priest".

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He was ordained in May 1958 by Cardinal Godfrey in Westminster Cathedral and sent as a curate to Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. He enjoyed parish duties, though working with sick children presented him with difficulties.

"The hospital certainly taught me that anyone with easy answers to the problem of innocent suffering has no answers at all,"

he recalled. It was in his next post, part-time as a curate in north Kensington and part-time as an assistant to the Westminster diocesan financial secretary, that he fell under the influence of Thomas Roberts, the Jesuit who had recently been Archbishop of Bombay.

Having made a success of his jobs, Kent was appointed second, then principal, secretary to the new Archbishop of Westminster, John Heenan, whose kindness and industry he admired and whose politics and lack of enthusiasm for ecumenism he rejected. He accompanied his superior to the Second Vatican Council in 1964 and continued with him to India, returning, despite Heenan's passionate hatred of communism and communists, via Moscow. In Easter 1964, when the cardinal's chauffeur was held up by a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) demonstration in Trafalgar Square, Kent asked Heenan what he thought about the bomb.

"Better dead than red"

was the Cardinal's laconic reply. Kent did not last much longer, though he was made a monsignor. He recounts how he took some pride in the fact that his new rank allowed him to wear a purple shirt, until Tom Driberg MP came up to him at a Fleet Street party, tickled the monsignorial chest and said:

"Who's this, then? Robin Redbreast?"

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In 1979 he asked Hume's permission to relinquish the parish and take the full-time (and high-profile) job of CND general secretary. The cardinal agreed but, Kent believed, lived to regret it. He ran CND until 1985, when he became its vice-chairman.

The 1983 election called by Margaret Thatcher signalled a determined attack on a rapidly strengthening CND, led by the Murdoch press, Michael Heseltine, the Ministry of Defence and a body called Policy Research Associates, which included Lord Chalfont, Norris McWhirter and Julian Lewis. During that attack, Kent felt he had been traduced by Hume in the latter's correspondence with Lewis. In his biography of Hume, Anthony Howard quoted Kent's words to the cardinal:

"It cannot be right for a bishop to discuss his priests in this way with strangers."

He was increasingly disenchanted with church attitudes. In his words,

"support for Solidarnosc in Poland was priestly. Support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was not. To be bishop of HM Forces was not political. To be CND chairman was." 

In December 1986, Kent sought Hume's permission to retire from the active priesthood. In 1988, without any formal ecclesiastical dispensation, he married Valerie Flessati, a pillar of Pax Christi, in Camden Town Hall.

In 1992 he unsuccessfully stood for the Labour Party in Oxford West.

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Bruce Kent, Roman Catholic priest and activist, born 22 June 1929, died 8 June 2022.