Substance Abuse

The Revd Kenneth Leech, who founded the Soho Drugs Group in 1967 and Centrepoint in 1969, writes about the part the Church can play in combating the drugs problem and in caring for and supporting those affected by it.


This article was first published in the Spring 2001 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

Kenneth Leech is community theologian at St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate, East London. He founded the Soho Drugs Group in 1967 and Centrepoint in 1969. He has written a number of substantial books, of which ‘Soul Friend’ (on spiritual direction) , ‘True God’ (an exploration in spiritual theology), and ‘True Prayer’ are among the best known. In ‘Drugs and Pastoral Care’ (DLT 1998), reviewed in the Autumn 1998 edition of Chrism, he deals with the matters outlined in this article in much greater detail.

© Guild of St Raphael

Drugs and Christian the Community

As I write, a diocesan bishop is at the centre of a conflict which has led to the resignation of the diocese’s advisor on pastoral care and counselling, one of the most distinguished international figures in this area. The bishop is quoted as saying that he is ‘a manager, not a pastor’. The apparent division, and at times opposition, between ‘management’ and pastoral ministry is one which has run through the history of responses to drugs of addiction since the 1960’s. Government responses, both from the Home Office and the Department of Health, have often used the phrase ‘the management of addiction’, while churches and voluntary bodies have been perceived to belong to a different world, the world of pastoral care. They are known as ‘caring agencies’. The political task, however, is concerned with ‘management’, and, in recent years, the language of ‘warfare’ has tended to become more central. I want in this article to suggest that this distinction is both simple minded and positively harmful in practice.

I seem to have been writing a version of this article for the past 35 years! I got involved with heroin and cocaine addiction when I was a deacon in Shoreditch in the early 1960s through discovering that the two sons of my church warden were using these drugs. Within a short time I found I was getting to know most of the addicts in East London. Since then, pastoral ministry in the drugs field has been a matter of following trails, trying to allow God and the people to set the agenda. My own role has shifted from street work, pastoral ministry in bars, clubs and housing estates in the 1960’s to a greater stress on education, policy, advocacy and support of other workers at the present time. I imagine that this kind of shift over time is true of other individuals. However, in terms of the response and potential response of the Christian community as a whole, the areas of involvement remain essentially the same. I want to draw attention to six key areas.

1. Witnessing to the truth

First, in its response to psychoactive drug use, as in all areas of life, the primary task of the Christian community is to witness to the truth. This is an essential dimension of prophecy. It is impossible to minister to individuals with problems and ignore the wider social, political and economic dimensions which are global as well as national, and include areas of drug policy. Dr Cindy Fazey, a former official of the World Health Organisation, has recently spoken of ‘the complete failure of national and international drugs policies’, while the late H B Spear, for many years head of the Home Office Drugs Branch, called British drugs policies since the late 60’s ‘an unmitigated disaster’. Often responses to drugs are more harmful than the drugs themselves. Public responses and policies can hinder and impede, as well as aid and strengthen, pastoral work.

We cannot separate pastoral from political, and this is clear to many of the Christian groups in the field. They are in a strong position to say so loudly and clearly, and they must do so, thus rejecting the role of ‘ambulance station’ or ‘casualty ward’ model of pastoral care. This is particularly important at this time when the government seems to want from the churches uncritical acceptance of its policies combined with the role of filling in gaps in social care provision. Governments do not want prophecy, but that is what is needed, not least in, and to, a Church which has been seduced by a culture of management and executive power.

2. Accurate knowledge

But prophecy arises out of awareness, and so, secondly, this calls for accurate knowledge of what is going on, close attention to trends and changes on one's own local patch, and sharing of this knowledge with others elsewhere. Such knowledge calls for interdisciplinary work between Christians and non-Christians, and across professional disciplines.

It is obvious that churches need to function within the specific context in which they are set, and they can only effectively do so if they are aware of what is happening in their area. Yet this is not always so. Ann Wright's study of the role of faith communities in Croydon commented that local religious leaders ‘were aware that drug abuse existed’ but ‘none of them had any personal experience or knew of anyone who was affected. . . None of the leaders had any real knowledge.’ It is of vital importance, if churches are to become more involved in pastoral care of drug users, that they are well-informed and aware of what is going on, including what is going on among their own members. For example, a study of 7,666 young people by the Evangelical Coalition on Drugs at the Spring Harvest festival in 1995 suggested that there was almost as much drug use among young people within churches as among non-churchgoers. On the other hand, it is still true that in many areas, churches have little awareness of what goes on in the streets beyond the church. There is no substitute for ‘street knowledge’, and in many areas the people with the most accurate street knowledge are youth and community workers. Often there are close working relationships between churches and the youth service, but these need to be strengthened.

It is worth adding at this point that, while the ‘drugs industry’ has grown enormously—some would claim that there are more drugs professionals now than there are addicts—and there is considerable specialised knowledge, it is quite wrong to assume that ‘ordinary people’, including church members, have no role to play. Of course, there is a need for accurate data, but nobody actually sees the whole picture. The local Christian community must not see itself as helpless, impotent, ignorant and useless. It has a role, provided it is prepared to learn and to be humble.

3. Crisis work

So a third area is that of crisis work. including street contact, crisis intervention, and harm reduction. In Soho in the late 1960s a number of us realised that, while total abstinence from drugs might be desirable, it was not going to happen overnight, and that crisis ministry concerned with the reduction of damage, was crucial. More recently, the Maze Project, based in the East End of London has become involved with the increasing numbers of young commercial sex workers. As a result of extensive and regular street work, relationships have been developed with the young women which has led to many positive results. There is no way that this kind of crisis work can be bypassed, but it is messy, imperfect, frustrating, yet increasingly necessary.

Drugs work also now may involve work with gangs fighting for territory. A Bengali group called Asha (hope), initiated by Abdul Khayar Ali, helped to negotiate a truce between a number of rival gangs in the East End. But experience shows that the work of reconciliation has to be continuous, and the decisive intervention cannot stand alone without the day by day routine boring work of building bridges and building confidence. This work is time-consuming and exhausting, and networks of support, as well as of accountability, are essential.

Of course, this connects with the character of pastoral ministry as a whole. Most of the time we are working with imperfection and brokenness. There is no simple and ideal way forward. Yet the encounter with God is in the midst, not apart from, this mess and muddle. Drugs work is simply one aspect of this general principle of pastoral care.

4. Christians and aftercare

Fourthly, Christians have been playing an important role for many years in after-care and in the rebuilding of damaged lives. The first residential rehabilitation centre for addicts was set up by the Community of St Mary the Virgin in the 19th Century, while most after-care communities in the 1960s were of evangelical Christian origin. Twelve Step programmes claim a 70 per cent success rate, and their work is of great relevance. However, my experience is that most official drug services, and many voluntary ones, do not reach minority groups, and that, in spite of increases in service provision, the majority of drug users are not in touch with any of them. Also Twelve Step programmes seem to have been more successful in relation to alcohol than to other drugs. There is no single method or programme which works for everyone.

5. Breaking down compartmentalism

Fifthly, Christian communities have an important role to play in breaking the compartmentalisation of thought and action in this and other areas of work. Most drugs problems cannot be understood, let alone ‘solved’, by looking at drugs in isolation from everything else—the economy, social fragmentation, meaninglessness in life, and so on. While there has been considerable progress in developing national strategies and networks of support for urban and rural ministry in general, my sense is that drugs work has not figured high on these agendas. On 18th June the Board for Social Responsibility is convening a conference to examine the current state of the Church's role in the drugs field, and this could be a good moment to see how drugs work can be integrated into the mainstream networks of urban and rural mission—including the plan for an international Anglican Urban Programme as suggested by the Lambeth Conference.

6. Creating communities of support and nourishment

Finally, the Church's task, here as elsewhere, is to pray, to discern, to try to create spiritual communities of solidarity, support and nourishment. Drugs expose the emptiness and meaninglessness of human life in a most dramatic and, at times, terrifying form, but they have not invented these things. The role of priests and pastors, as well as lay Christians, in sharing this hopelessness and helping people see a way through it, is as urgent as it ever was. Pastoral care must always take the issues of despair with great seriousness. Perhaps the drug explosion will help us to understand something which has been present in our tradition for thousands of years, the truth of staying with the darkness in hope, with stability and faithfulness. Bruce Kenrick's words, written about work with heroin users in East Harlem in the early 1960’s are very much to the point here:

‘. . . the Church must suffer and be crucified with those it seeks to serve; and . . it must keep on being crucified even though the nails bite deep and the hope of resurrection is obscure’.

More recently, my former colleague, David Randall, who founded the International Christian AIDS Network, wrote of his own journey from a focus on efficient organising and management to a more reflective approach which takes seriously our own brokenness and vulnerability:

‘After seventeen years as a London parish priest where my ministry has been built upon the ongoing building up of relationships, and community development centred on the eucharistic community, I have found it especially hard adjusting to the ministry on the AIDS unit. . . l have always been a great fixer, both as social activist seeking to change the world, and as priest-actor-manager offering a sacramental merry go round of exciting worship and meaningful spiritual comfort. Only now am I slowly, falteringly and fearfully facing the challenge of staying where the suffering really is, of not knowing the answers, and being honest about this, of allowing others to set the agenda for ministry, and even admitting that I receive from them as much as I can ever give.’

David's words, while related to AIDS, has wider application. Much of our ministry in the future, as in the past, will consist in the nurturing and sustaining of hope in the midst of unutterable pain and anguish. And this calls for more than management, more than skills and techniques, more than ‘information’. It calls for profound attention to God and people, stillness in the midst of chaos, contemplation in the midst of action, and a real sharing in the dying and rising of Christ.

© Guild of St Raphael