Alan Edwards reminisces on the late Fr Gresham Kirkby

A bottle of Bells emptied and a goodly proportion of Sankey & Moody’s hymnbook sung. The agenda for my first meeting, nearly fifty years ago, with Fr Gresham Kirkby, Anglican papalist, anarchist, pacifist, liturgist, man of prayer and man of Cornwall who died recently.

Although Kirkby’s long ministry was urban, including 43 years as a Stepney vicar, the clue to possibly Anglicanism’s last Catholic rebel was his Cornish birth. For years his only BCP propped up his piano, a protest against the brutal repression of the 1549 Cornish rebellion. Yet he knew the Prayer Book & Articles thoroughly, delighting that the Latin text of Article XXXVII only sanctioned ‘just wars.’

His Celtic musicality was evidenced not only by piano playing but also by his skills as organist. As a Becontree curate he encouraged music in a young Dudley Moore. Cornish patriotism made Billy Bray, charismatic Victorian Primitive Methodist preacher, his favourite saint. A family holy relic was the tea cup that Billy used on a visit to a Kirkby forebear.

Mirfield formed his devotional discipline, his breviary and pipe tobacco constant pocket companions. Also a concern for social justice, further fuelled by Conrad Noel’s influence, although anarchism rather than Noel’s socialism set his political compass and Roman Rite not Prayer Book Catholicism his liturgical course.

However, as an anarchist, he could not adopt the entire Roman regime. May Day Mass and not the insipid feast of Saint Joseph the Worker featured in his Kalendar, with ‘The Son of God goes forth to War’ (Tune: ‘The Red Flag’) as the Office hymn.

For years his curate was the worker priest Fr John Rowe, author of a seminal work on the role of the worker priest. The coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness was the normative principle of Kirkby’s theology. A founder of the Jubilee Group he influenced such famous Jubilee members as Kenneth Leech and Rowan Williams. Yet he didn’t follow their advocacy of female ordination, supporting instead Forward in Faith. His anarchic spirit saw the Synod majority as a new establishment to be resisted.

After years of advocating the Roman Rite his contrary Cornish spirit found him worshipping in retirement at St Mary, Bourne Street. The BCP was rescued from underneath his piano.

His abiding memorial is the rebuilding of war-blitzed St Paul, Bow Common, England’s prime Liturgical Reform church, winning for architects Maguire and Murray international acclaim. Yet the basic concept was Kirkby’s who wanted a building to ‘shriek of sacrifice’ but rooted in the everyday world. Hence the dominant stone central altar but unplastered industrial brick walls. The portal bore the words ‘none other than the gates of heaven.’ For years ‘Gates of ‘Eaven’ was a well-known Stepney bus-stop. His congregation didn’t always appreciate the symbolism. Said one, ‘If the window got a brick through it, he’d say it was to let the ‘Oly Ghost in.’

Gresham Kirkby was no ‘gin (his preference was beer) and lace’ Catholic. When many were still fiddling with fiddle-backs he advocated unfussy vestments and the economy and simplicity of clothing altars with Indian cotton bed-spreads. His pastoral tact was also illustrated by his Liberty’s liturgical use. Finding a student lodger in bed with a girl friend he remarked ‘Just want your bed-spread for an altar.’

Anarchic pacifism led to support for CND’s Committee of 100 and he was arrested with Bertrand Russell at a Trafalgar Square sit-down. However, he was primarily a pastor and man of prayer and always in church to recite the daily offices. In his 90th year he still had the zeal to devise an experimental lectionary. Shortly before he died (he was one day from 90) he declared that he had ‘an undying faith in anarchy.’ Kirkby was an anarchist like those early saints who ‘turned the world upside down.’

Fr Gresham’s upside down views have been for many a catalyst. A stimulus to see that the Gospel, in the words of a hymn that we sang when he and I shared ‘times of glory’ (Evangelical readers will know that phrase) which proclaims that ‘the old, old story, it is ever new.’