Christopher Smith recalls the work of this column’s founder
I was terribly sad to hear that Geoffrey Kirk died on Good Friday, although I was aware that he’d not been all that well for some years. Many, perhaps most, readers will recall something of his contribution to the Catholic Movement in the 1990s and 2000s, and it was, of course, from him that I took on this column in 2012, when he joined the Ordinariate. He was not, I think, re-ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, but Fr Kirk was vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham for over thirty years, and a key member of the Catholic Group on General Synod. He was always terribly kind to me when I was in South London, for which I was most grateful.
I presume the idea for this column, taking its title from Trollope, was his. The Way We Live Now is a novel which mocks the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the establishment of the day, and Fr Kirk was fearless in doing likewise. But readers may not know just how much else he contributed to the magazine, sometimes under his own name, but also under a series of noms-de-plume, principally ‘Mark Stephens’. I once wrote an article under the name ‘Stephen Marks’, just to see if anyone would comment, but no-one did.
Here he is, then, in the autumn of 2006, on the subject of ‘the contemporary liberal enthusiasm for apology’. John Betjeman’s daughter, Candida Lycett-Green, had just issued some kind of formal apology on behalf of her late father to the people of Slough. ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, it isn’t fit for humans now’, the erstwhile poet laureate had written in 1937.
‘What was she thinking of?’ asked Fr Kirk, ‘and why did she feel herself entitled, simply out of affinity of blood, to speak for its author?’ He puts it down to what we might now call virtue signalling, ‘the downright right-on-ness of the apologist. And the need to make that declaration springs from the known consequences of not doing so: social exclusion.’ And he goes on,
‘Modern liberal society is not, as some have portrayed it, the haven of free speech and opinion. It is constrained by taboos (largely unspoken and unacknowledged) which render some opinions as unacceptable as a fart at a royal garden party, yet canonize other opinions in a wholly irrational way… Poor Candida, now she has begun to toboggan down the slippery slope, had better catalogue all those other apologies which the poetry of her father will eventually necessitate – for a poet given to religious sentiment and class distinction will surely require yet more contrition from his blood relations. The liberal consensus is a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.’
And by that liberal consensus, he contended, the Church of England had been caught hook, line and sinker. He often had a go at the liberalism of the Episcopal Church in the USA, but always warned that when American Anglicans sneezed, the C of E caught a cold. Here he is on the liberal theology of a particularly notorious American bishop.
‘What would we do without Gene Robinson? He is the bellwether of the liberal agenda. Like God himself, if he did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.’ And he set about unpicking a recent pronouncement of Bishop Robinson’s. ‘To begin with first principles, what is human life for? To this question orthodox Christians have traditionally replied that it is to be lived in obedient service to God and in the hope hereafter to enjoy him for ever. For liberal Christians, on the contrary, it is self-evident that the end of human existence is self-fulfilment and self-realization. We are, quite literally, an end in ourselves: I exist in order fully to express the person that I am.’ He wrote that in 2008, but he might have watched it being played out during the current quinquennium of General Synod.
Fr Kirk’s other great beef with the American Episcopal Church was that it had prioritised social action above the Christian Faith, when, in fact, our social action ought to flow from ‘what Christianity is and what the Church is for’. Again, the Americans having sneezed, we have caught a cold. He was particularly scathing about their obsession with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which are fundamentally about alleviating world poverty. ‘A concern for the poor, for the “little ones of God”, which is a fruit of the Gospel, is being used cynically and deliberately to undermine the very religion which has done most in the world to advance that concern and meet those needs.’
When Pope Benedict visited the UK in 2010, Fr Kirk took to task those ‘post-Christians with committed agendas’ who demonstrated against the visit. ‘The paradox of the unity and coherence of the opposition to the Pope’s vision is that it derives its very rationale and structure from the moral system which it opposes… The question for Anglicans is surely whether the Church of England, with its habit (as Newman pointed out) of baptizing the ambient culture, has any hope of countering this new and concerted attack on Christian culture.’ After all, ‘To this cacophony of related private interests the response is Benedict’s programme of reasoned natural theology—the Philosophy of Life. He responds by demanding that such a programme be rehearsed in the public square. No privatised morality can sustain a healthy and fully integrated society.’
It was that Papal visit that brought Fr Kirk to the point of deciding to join the Ordinariate. ‘To embrace Benedict’s generous offer … is not to forsake Austin Farrer, who nurtured my vocation, or John Moorman, who ordained me. It is to remain faithful to them in the only way which remains open to me at the end of a long ministry’. Rest in peace, Father.