By: Martin Pendergast
Fr Bill Kirkpatrick, a non-stipendiary Anglican priest, died on 4 January 2018 after living with dementia for ten years, an end, which he had dreaded, to an extraordinary life.
Canadian-born, his early years were considerably vulnerable, barely knowing who he was. A month old, he was placed in a private orphanage, taking its name as his surname. He left school aged 15 and worked in an elderly-care home, coming to England six years later. He found work in Selfridges Department Store and Foyle's Bookshop. Air-stewarding followed until he trained as a psychiatric nurse.
His own vulnerabilities and later psychiatric training enabled him to have great empathy for those with all sorts of practical, emotional and spiritual needs. Bill's life was marked by sporadic, stressful breakdowns. It was after one of these in 1965 that he was baptised, confirmed, and later accepted for ordination training, being priested in 1970, becoming a worker-priest nurse at East London's St. Clement's Hospital. His spirituality was influenced by the writings of Charles de Foucauld, Thomas Merton, Franciscan poverty and fraternity. He had close links with the Anglican Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres, Oxford who were inspired by the Carmelite contemplative tradition.
It was as a Roman Catholic Carmelite that I first met Fr Bill in 1973, pondering with him whether a worker-priest ministry might be possible in a Catholic context. Living in a tiny bed-sit above St Anne's Church, Soho, here was a prophetic, contemplative-in-the-City Anglican priest, working at the recently-founded Centrepoint with young homeless people.
Four years were spent with the Society of St Francis but Bill was first to admit that he was too much a city-bound loner to fit into religious community life. Returning to London in 1978 as a non-stipendiary Assistant Priest at St Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, he found a new vocation wandering parish streets, starting Reaching Out. Bill described this as "a small cell of contemplative action within the Earls Court area … allowing for a ministry of sharing from within the sacredness of each other's vulnerabilities and strengths where there is no 'them' and 'us'."
Building on Centrepoint and Earls Court's street experiences, he began Streetwise Youth along with his later partner of twenty years, Richie McMullen, working with male sex-workers, many only 16-18 and younger; Bill had been particularly shocked by the murder of a 15-year-old boy who 'worked' the area. It was during these years that AIDS and HIV was recognised, and Bill was one of the first to see that the co-factors were not promiscuity, irresponsible behaviour, or belonging to 'risk-groups', but stigma, oppression, poverty and lack of sexual health education.
Bill was one of the first to coin "AFRAIDS" - irrational fear of AIDS - as he saw "the Church institution very fearful of the HIV virus that it carries in its brothers and sisters. This fear leads to a judgmental and rejecting attitude as it continues to be unwilling to be alongside those who mirror its own weaknesses and its own vulnerability. It also highlights the fact that the Church seems to be living in fear of different sexual orientations, preventing it from recognising and acceding relationships which are co-creative of the pair, excluding them from the mystery of loving each other physically, mentally, socially and spiritually."
In those early 1980's, people from mainly Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches joined to challenge the ecclesiastical structural sin of AIDS-phobia. Bill was one of the first priests to throw himself into visiting the sick and burying the dead, when no one else would. Bill, with Fr David Randall, Bro Colin Wilfrid SSF, Revd Malcolm Johnson, Revd. Richard Kirker, Sr Eva Heymann SHCJ, Fr Bill Kirkpatrick, Charles O'Byrne, myself and others, tried to show Churches how it was possible to living positively with HIV & AIDS. Bill was later to offer us an invaluable resource in his 1993 book, AIDS: Sharing the Pain.
His was a spirituality of 'being there', marked by a profoundly contemplative stance, present to "the Mystery". I hardly ever heard him talk of God, the Almighty or the divine - it was always simply falling down before "the Mystery", and one became acutely aware of this when he prayed publicly, or celebrated the Eucharist.
'Being there' "… puts me into deeper awareness of my innermost self, my contemplative self alongside my active self, my most vulnerable and valuable self, where I have been and still am be faced with the ultimate questions about life and perhaps more importantly about dying and death."
Quotations from: A Contemplative in the City, Fr Bill Kirkpatrick - www.thomasmertonsociety.org/Journal/01/1-2Kirkpatrick.pdf
Fr Bill's funeral takes place, 12noon, 29 January 2018, St Cuthbert's Church, Philbeach Gardens, Earls Court SW5 9EB
Father Bill Kirkpatrick
16 June 1927 - 4 January 2018