FOR me, it all started in Foster Lane with a quickening of steps. I was trying to leg it out of church during the final hymn. I was young, new to London, and in search of silence, and — whatever that was — I wasn’t sure it was here. The footsteps belonged to Alison Norman, a painfully shy radical, with a record of anti-apartheid activities. She said: “Have a glass of wine and stay for a minute?” Half an hour later, I was signed up for both St Vedast’s and something mysterious called the Servants of Christ the King (SCK).
SCK was set up in 1943 by Roger Lloyd, a canon from Winchester Cathedral. Lloyd wrote to William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, to propose a lay order. They imagined small cells in the community, unpublicised but concerned with the work of prayer. It was a kind of Anglican stealth group to rejuvenate the Church, by uniting prayer at the coal face with social action.
THE idea launched with 40 groups, and multiplied. Each group would sit in silence for half an hour, waiting on God, seeking a common concern for action. Afterwards, members would speak, Quaker-style, to the listening process. The floor would then open for interaction.
In a seminal pamphlet of 1944, Edmund Morgan, bishop-in-waiting and a founder member of SCK, described the Holy Spirit “weaving” in the silence, the pattern emerging later during discussion. This powerful process continued over the 70 years of the organisation’s life, leading members to work and pray in small and larger ways in their parishes, workplaces, and beyond, with extraordinary results. The unique point was the exploration of the link between contemplation and action.
BY 2014, numbers had dwindled. The formal organisation was disbanded at a celebratory conference, at which Rowan Williams officiated. Some seven decades of quiet prayer and invisible waiting came to an end, and lay like a husk on the ground. No one quickened their steps during the final hymn. Edmund Morgan might have called this a sign of “the veiled energy of God”: the ultimate example of which, he believed, is the apparently powerless cross.
We approached Canterbury Cathedral with the idea of using the remaining SCK funds to give the cathedral an icon. It wasn’t much, but it seemed like a marker. This was an organisation that had no geographical home. It was both modest and powerful, silent and social, and somehow got under people’s skins.
I pitched the idea to Canon Nick Papadopulos, then at Canterbury, and now the new Dean of Salisbury. It was an opportunity to hold the idea up to his barrister-sharp mind. Afterwards, I wondered whether the cathedral needed another item from a group of well-meaning people in decline. While waiting for the answer, the iconographer Amanda de Pulford and I scoured the cathedral archive and the medieval stained glass for an image that might inspire a Canterbury Christ. The image did not emerge.
THE cathedral came back with a green light, and we moved forward together to create a new prayer station — in Temple’s words, “to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God . . . and to purge the imagination by the beauty of God”. The SCK ethos was never to impose but to join with others in silent attention, moving forward together on a common concern. We had no interest in a memorial, but in a new project — one that we would not be part of.
Just when we thought that we had signed off the plans, the Dean, the Very Revd Robert Willis, called us in to say that he had led a retreat for the Anglican bishops, using some elements of this Temple-inspired journey. It had seemed to some that the suggested Pantocrator icon did not reflect the cutting edge between silence and service.
Out of that came a sharp change of direction, and a common concern that united us all. The subject of the icon became the foot-washing story, rare in conventional iconography. Jean Vanier — the founder of the l’Arche organisation for adults with learning difficulties, and beloved by SCK — had brought to Canterbury a special understanding of the foot-washing liturgy, which he led on several occasions in the crypt.
MORE artists joined. Father Michael, from Downside Abbey, made an oak kneeler, wrought — like the icon — in silence and prayer. The Downside Brothers embraced our common concern, embodying for us the early Benedictines who accompanied St Augustine to Canterbury to dedicate the cathedral to Christ.
We approached Fine Cell Work, the charity that works with needlework in prisons. Male prisoners will undertake a cushion for the kneeler, designed by Alex Beattie (author of the “Six Days of Creation” tapestries), for installation in 2019. The design depicts the transcendental water from the foot-washing vessel. It might seem, as we kneel before the icon, that we are kneeling in the deep.
We found a blacksmith, James Price, at the end of a remote lane in rural Sussex, to forge a candlestick to stand by the icon. The artist Hugh Ribbans is producing linocuts for graphics to frame and direct the question we all might stumble over: How do I look at this holy thing?
THE icon has found its home in the heart of the cathedral crypt, in front of an ancient stone screen. A suspended Antony Gormley figure, made from nails from the cathedral roof, turns silently in the adjacent space. Perhaps the new prayer station is some small contemporary call to silence, prayer, and action, at a time when the world faces much darkness.
On the rail, between us and the image of Christ and Peter, a Benedictine monk has carved “Wait for the Lord”. It reminds those who choose to kneel of that veiled energy of the divine, which eternally creates, ever seeking out what it has made.
Be “rich in desire” was Morgan’s advice to SCK in 1944: wait on God, but know also that God waits in that same silence for our response.
Estelle Daniel is a drama producer and a former member of SCK.
The new prayer station will be installed and blessed in a eucharist in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral at 12 noon on Saturday 12 January. All are welcome.