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SCK icon installed in Canterbury Cathedral

Prayer station in Canterbury Cathedral
Photo © Canterbury Cathedral. Iconographer: Amanda de Pulford

A prayer station with an icon of Christ washing the feet of Saint Peter was installed in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral on 12 January 2019. It was commissioned by SCK and may be seen as a thank-offering for SCK’s seventy years of service.

Installation and blessing of the icon

Icon of Christ washing the feet of Saint Peter
Photo © Canterbury Cathedral. Iconographer: Amanda de Pulford

More than a hundred people – former members of SCK, family and friends of the recently departed Alison Norman, monks from Downside and Worth Abbeys, nuns from Minster Abbey, students of iconography and others – were present at the Eucharist and blessing of the icon in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral on 12 January 2019. The Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury, presided at the Eucharist; the Very Reverend Nicolas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury and former Canon Treasurer of Canterbury Cathedral, gave the sermon; Lance Haward, long-standing member of SCK, read the Epistle (Philippians 2:1-13); and the Venerable Olivia Graham, Archdeacon of Berkshire and niece of Alison Norman, led the intercessions. During intercessions, prayers were offered for former members of SCK who were prevented from coming to Canterbury by frailty or illness, and thanks were given for those now departed who helped to lead and inspire the movement: Roger Lloyd, Edmund Morgan, Olive Parker, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, Alison Norman and Wendy Robinson.

During the Procession to the Icon at the conclusion of the Eucharist, representatives of the Benedictine Communities of Downside and Worth sang Veni Sancte Spiritus (the Golden Sequence), attributed to Stephen Langton (c.1150-1228), Archbishop of Canterbury. The witness of the Servants of Christ the King was also remembered in the prayers at Choral Evensong later in the day.

Donating the icon, together with the kneeler, cushion, candlestick and other items, is intended to be SCK’s final act as a national organisation and registered charity. But although some of us may feel an understandable nostalgia for the glory days, this was far from being a sad occasion. It was our final corporate act of self-offering. Already there are signs that ‘the green blade riseth’. The Servants of Christ the King over a period of more than seventy years exemplified a way of waiting on God’s will together, listening to God and to one another, and being faithful together to a shared understanding of God’s will for us. Now we may dare to believe that others are finding and will go on finding new expressions of such a way.

Sermon by the Very Reverend Nicolas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury and former Canon Treasurer of Canterbury Cathedral

“Advance which comes as continuous progress is an expansion of the circle of which self is still the centre…if God himself be included in the circle, he is peripheral, not central; he is, for me, my God, not God whose I am.”

In his Gifford Lectures, published in 1934, William Temple claims that human advance towards the goals of beauty, truth or goodness will ultimately succeed only if it begins or ends with a sharp break. In religious language, he writes, such a break is commonly termed a conversion, or a new birth. When such a break displaces self; when conversion of life (as St Benedict would have it) takes place; when it is allowed that God is at the centre of the circle: then and only then are beauty, truth and goodness within our reach.

Temple, commemorated in the North East Transept of this Cathedral, had identified what was to become the most cherished charism of the Servants of Christ the King. He did so a decade before the founding Conference of 1943 expressed it formally. “The whole foundation of the life of the company” reads the Declaration “is corporate prayer, and waiting upon God in a due alternation of discussion and prayer, in the belief that God will make his will known.”

That last phrase is vital because throughout its history SCK’s understanding of “waiting” has never been aimless, but has always been of a character that our present Archbishop might call “intentional”. Roger Lloyd explained to the new movement that “by waiting upon God, a company…arrives at a decision about what its work for the kingdom of God is, and how it is to try to do it”.

Waiting upon God; together the discerning the will of God; enacting it to build up the Kingdom. This has been the mission of the Servants of Christ the King. This mission is embodied in the extraordinarily beautiful icon which we will dedicate today. Estelle Daniel first broached the possibility with me over a cup of coffee in summer 2017 (as an aside, on everyone’s behalf, I salute her vision and tenacity, which has brought us to today). She broached the possibility of an icon of the Pantocrator, Christ in majesty, but in conversation with Dean Robert it soon emerged that the washing of Peter’s feet was the right subject for this icon.

Right because in the scene that Amanda de Pulford has written Peter discovers the truth of William Temple’s words. In pleading “…not my feet only but also my hands and my head” Peter places himself at the centre of the circle: but in finally submitting to Christ’s humble service he learns what it is to wait on God; he learns what it is to pause, and to allow himself to be attended to by the One who is the true centre of all life. When Christ has removed the towel from around his waist he tells them why he has done what he has done: “you also ought to wash one another’s feet”. Wait on God; discern the will of God; enact it to build up the Kingdom.

That will now be the icon’s call to the thousands of visitors who pass this way every year. Standing a few feet from the first shrine of Thomas Becket, who learned to wait on God in his years of exile and returned to his Cathedral determined never to leave it again; standing in the place where Jean Vanier washed the feet of the Anglican Primates, as they discerned God’s will for them to continue to walk together: the icon will call pilgrims to prayer and send them out to service. It will offer to many the possibility of new adventures in discipleship.

It might be appropriate to say that the icon will be a lasting memorial to a history which has now come to an end. But at one turning point in the movement’s story Alison Norman is recorded as saying: “I think it is just possible that that moment will prove to have been the beginning of a new life for SCK, though perhaps in some radically-changed and almost unrecognisable form.”

Today, from heaven perhaps she says “I told you so”. Amen.

More about the Project by Estelle Daniel

It all started with a plan to commission a new icon with the remaining SCK funds. The intention was not so much to create a legacy to the movement, but an ongoing work of prayer on the cutting edge of silence and social action. As the project has grown, we have enjoyed a profound collaboration between Canterbury Cathedral and other parties. The icon has now been installed in the most ancient part of the medieval crypt, as a permanent place for prayer and pilgrimage.

As we have gone along, others have joined us, sharing our instinct to create something which looks forward rather than back. The icon represents seven decades of SCK prayer and will serve as an ongoing powerful call to silence and action, for the many hundreds from all over the world, who pass through the Cathedral every day. The making of this installation has been an unexpected common concern springing out of SCK waiting on God. We have no doubt that it will reach out into the hearts and lives of people, who will share our ethos and life of prayer long after we are gone. Many SCK members who celebrated with joy and thanksgiving with Rowan Williams at our final conference, have been astonished to watch the progress of this project. We thought we were a husk on the ground, but now we see that a new seed is growing in ways that we will not fully know nor could we have imagined.

First we were joined by the Cathedral and Chapter at Canterbury. When we approached them, they were reflecting on William Temple’s preaching on prayer and its consequences in the community. With their support and prayer representing something close to William Temple’s early enthusiasm for SCK, the icon project has expanded to become a new prayer station in the Cathedral. They challenged us to explore the essence of the SCK ethos, in relation to our choice of image for the icon. This resulted in a rethink and the subject of the icon became Christ washing the feet of St Peter, to express our faith in God’s call to both prayer and action. It further unites us with the Cathedral, as the foot washing ministry has a special place in the Canterbury crypt. Jean Vanier, the founder of l’Arche, came to Canterbury to wash the feet of the Dean and Chapter, and later the Anglican bishops, thus bringing a new and sacramental understanding.

Other travelling companions have been the brothers at Downside Abbey. They are engaged in prayer for renewal for themselves and have asked us to join them in this. Father Michael Clothier has made a wooden kneeler to go in front of the icon, with the SCK style text “Wait for the Lord” carved along the top of the rail. When kneeling the carved text can be followed meditatively like the action of prayer beads. The kneeler is carved to echo the medieval stone carving of the setting and it also features an alpha and omega, and a Gregorian cross. The first Benedictine brothers were sent by Pope Gregory to accompany Augustine to bring Christianity to Britain, so their return to the Cathedral bearing this wonderful gift has a special symbolism.

The cushion on the kneeler will depict holy water in all its biblical and transcendent aspects. It is currently being designed by Alex Beattie, who designed the Ehrman Creation tapestries. It will be stitched by male prisoners under the guidance of the Fine Cell Work Charity, another collaborator in the project. The cushion is likely to be blessed and installed at the end of 2019. We hope that both the charity and the prisoners it serves will continue to be a common concern springing out of the project – a matter for both prayer and our action.

The icon is flanked by a specially forged candlestick which will burn beside it as a symbol of ongoing prayer and waiting on God. This was made by an artisan blacksmith near Brighton. There are prayer cards and other graphics designed by artist and printmaker Hugh Ribbans.