After four years as General Secretary of CND, Mgr Bruce Kent is relinquishing the position. Jonathan Petre examines his controversial career.
NEXT to Cardinal Hume, the cherubfeatured Mgr Bruce Kent, the "turbulent priest" of the press movement, is Britain's best-known priest.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the news of his impending resignation as General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has, as news of his actions have done so often, hit the headlines.
Mgr Kent has stressed that his resignation has more to do with the growing administrative pressures of the job, which have expanded dramatically in the four years of his office, than with any pressure from the Catholic Church.
But he has been a controversial figure almost from the day he became General Secretary in February 1980. His relations with Cardinal Hume, particularly after last year's publication of the Cardinal's letter expressing concern at CND's growing political involvement, have been given wide coverage. So, despite his assertions, one is left with a suspicion that Mgr Kent may have decided to resign because he foresees the possibility of further damaging publicity in the future.
CND could well be considering adopting a more political stance over the next few years, particularly now the Labour Party has opted for a policy of unilateral disarmament.
Bruce Kent has presided over a period of extraordinary growth, both in numbers and influence, in the British peace movement. He points out that the base of CND membership has been substantially broadened, to include groups of lawyers and ex-servicemen.
When he became General Secretary, CND employed three staff, was run from one small office and had an annual turnover of no more than £350,000. Now it employs 40 people, using three buildings. and its turnover is close to El million.
Mgr Kent has had a vital role in this expansion. As a priest he has been able to provide a moral authority to the unilateral argument. He has been a consistent thorn in he side of the Conservative elements of the Church, who have tried to oust him from his post by arguing that priests should not be involved in politics. He has angered the right-wing with his perisitent attacks and his mobilisation of the Christian peace campaign. Examining his background, Mgr Kent is a somewhat untypical convert, to the unilateralist cause. Born in London in 1929, the son of a Canadian businessman, he was educated by the Jesuits at Stoneyhurst public school, and then served for two years in the sixth Royal Tank Regiment. He entered St Edmunds College, Ware, to study for the priesthood, having taken a degree in law at Brasenose College, Oxford.
Widely tipped as a high-flier in the Church, he became Cardinal Heenan's secretary at the age of 33. He had spent the first few years of his priesthood as a curate at Our Lady of Victories, Kensington, and Ladbroke Grove.
His appointment as the secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster in succession to Mgr Derek Worlock seemed to signal the first step on the ladder to a bishopric. His subsequent appointment as chairman of the diocesan schools commission only confirmed this.
But Mgr Kent's whole vision of his role in the Church took a radical turn after a revalatory visit to Biafra in 1969. There he saw the effects of the arms trade, and he soon made his commitment to the peace movement by becoming full-time chaplain to the British section of Pax Christi, the Catholic peace organisation. In April last year Mgr Kent became embroiled in a controversy which sparked off a national debate on the role of the priest in politics, and made front page news for weeks.
The Times published extracts of a reply Cardinal Hume had been sending to critics of CND in which he expressed "serious misgivings" about the role of Mgr Kent.
In the letter the Cardinal said: "Should the political aspect of CND develop further and become more predominant in this work, it would be difficult for a priest to hold responsible office in the direction of the movement."
He added, however, that this point had yet to be reached, and that he had no intention of changing his decision to allow Mgr Kent a leave of absence from parish work in Westminster diocese. Controversy erupted again in November after Mgr Kent had addressed the British Communist party at their annual conference in London. The fact that he made the speech, rather than its content, again raised the question of whether he was becoming too political.
Cardinal Hume called a brief meeting with Mgr Kent a few days later. Although details of the conversation were never made known, it is clear that Mgr Kent was warned not to overstep the mark again or he might be asked to choose between CND and the priesthood. Mgr Kent has always been a priest first, and has never contemplated leaving Holy Order. Despite the claims of his critics, he still practices a pastoral role alongside his CND work. He is rarely seen in public without a dog collar. it is perhaps his desire to think well of people that has led him to miscalculate the effects of his actions, for which critics have described him as politically naive. His decision to resign as General Secretary, therefore, must have been influenced, not only by his desire to avoid further embarrassment for the Church, but also a desire for more time to concentrate on his priestly ministry.