The Servants of Christ the King (1943–2014)

An adventure in discipleship

God is Light and in Him is no darkness at all. He is Truth and the Spirit leads us into all the Truth. The Good Shepherd leads us onward and leads us home. We may therefore confidently expect the loving guidance of God. It is evidently His desire to give it to us. And it is characteristically experienced in fellowship. We are more likely to have come near to what God wants us to see if we have reached a common mind as a company of praying people than if we remain isolated individuals.
— Edmund Morgan, 1944
They also serve who only stand and wait was written about the ministry of the Holy Angels, whose mission to God’s world is made possible by their unflinching attention to the face of God. Like the angels, the Servants of Christ the King try to seek God’s face and to listen to His word in order to be of service in God’s world.
— Peter Thorburn, 1990

The adventure started when four Anglican clergymen met at a conference in 1942. The conference was on some matter of church administration. But the minds of these clergymen were on something altogether bigger and more challenging. What they saw as urgent and necessary was the conversion of England.

The country was at war. At last there were signs that the war was beginning to turn. Around the country and among the armed forces different groups were beginning to ask themselves: what kind of country do we want to live in after the war is ended?

The founding group had been deeply impressed by T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society (1939). They discussed how such a society might be brought about. Preaching had been tried and failed. It seemed that clergy alone could not reach all the places which would have to be reached. Might an answer lie in dedicated groups of lay Christians, leavening the communities in which they lived and worked? They asked one of their number to take their ideas forward into a definite proposal.

The man they chose was Roger Lloyd , priest and journalist. Early in his ministry in Manchester he had been an activist for the Industrial Christian Fellowship. Now he was the Canon Missioner of Winchester Cathedral. His proposal went out to 160 people in May 1942. (He wrote apologetically, I could not get enough paper to have any more copies made.) With the encouragement of William Temple, newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, this led to a founding conference in Oxford at Epiphany 1943. Thus began the 72-year life of the Servants of Christ the King.

How were groups of lay Christians to be organised? How would questions of decision and discernment be handled? The model adopted from the beginning and retained throughout the life of the movement came to be known as ‘waiting on God’. It was designed to be practised in groups of not more than twelve lay people. Each group was to meet regularly for an alternation of prayer and discussion. There was a definite structure consisting of an introduction; silence (usually 30 minutes); ‘controlled discussion’ in which each member was free to speak without interruption or comment; open discussion; and then a time for group decisions if needed. Decisions were binding on group members only if reached in unanimity.

More on Waiting on God

For more information on Waiting on God see Waiting on God by Brian Bridge, published by Grove Books, Cambridge in 2013.

Local groups were largely autonomous. The role of central SCK was mainly to encourage, inform and connect. Waiting on God faithfully in company and with patience, each prayerful group was expected to receive all the direction that would be needed. Groups would naturally be drawn to different needs and concerns in their own areas. It fairly soon became clear that ‘the conversion of England’ was both too broad and too narrow a description for the variety of concerns which came to light. The practice of waiting on God, rather than the preconceived aim of the founders, became the one common element. Waiting on God in the manner of the Servants of Christ the King was a model for the right relationship of Christian prayer and action. It also asserted, against the rising tide of individualism, the importance of praying and acting together.

The Servants of Christ the King began without publicity. For nearly ten years, all documents were marked For Private Circulation only and not for Publication. Each local group (known within the movement as a company) was intended to be an élite Christian force. Indeed one of the names for the movement which had been put to the founding conference was The Christian Commandoes. Fortunately this name was not adopted.

The opening of the doors began with the book An Adventure in Discipleship: The Servants of Christ the King by Roger Lloyd, published in 1953. Many new people came into the movement. With them came a new understanding of the place of the Servants of Christ the King in the mission of the church. The method and practice of waiting on God had been devised as a spiritual exercise for Christian warriors bound together by quasi-monastic vows. Now it began to seem possible that it might be a way of life for all Christians. Olive Parker was a strong influence in promoting this view. She had come to the movement as a result of reading An Adventure in Discipleship and within a few years became the movement’s Secretary. Her book The New Commandment: The Servants of Christ the King was published in 1962.

A further opening came in 1964, when the annual conference decided to open the Servants of Christ the King to all Christian denominations. This had less effect than some had hoped: the Servants of Christ the King continued to the end to have a strongly Anglican feel. But at least the barriers were down. Non-Anglicans were welcomed into local groups and to the central organisation of the movement.

Sadly, the opening of the Servants of Christ the King to all Christians came at a time when church adherence was in decline. John Robinson’s Honest to God seemed to speak to many people’s condition. It was serialised in a national newspaper and discussed everywhere within and outside the churches. Many people gave up churchgoing, few young people were coming in, and there was a critical shortage of vocations to the priesthood and to monastic life. The discipline of the Servants of Christ the King was not in tune with the spirit of the times. By the end of the 1960s it seemed that the movement could not go on much longer.

The movement was given new heart by Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, who accepted the Wardenship of the Servants of Christ the King in 1972. He had just been released from imprisonment in South Africa. As Dean of Johannesburg he had opposed the apartheid government there, condemning apartheid as blasphemous against God and man. Passionate in faith, he exemplified in himself the combination of prayer and action on which the Servants of Christ of King had been built. As Warden, he urged the member groups not to lose sight of this vision. He brought inspiration and urgency back into the movement. However, the standard which he set was so high that some members felt guilty that they were not living up to such high ideals.

The movement continued for more than thirty years after Gonville retired from the wardenship. Some new groups sprang up, mostly when existing members moved home into new areas. But the overall picture was one of steady decline. From time to time people questioned whether it was time to close down – what Robin Bennett called the SCK death-wish – but the answer to the question was always no. This went on for as long as people were coming to the annual conference and someone was able to produce the newsletter. The end did not come until 2014.

Why did the Servants of Christ the King take so long to die? Organisations tend to be self-perpetuating. But there was much more to it than that. Over many years officers and members of the movement looked for organisations with similar outlooks and practices. They were hoping for co-operation and perhaps an eventual merger which would take their ideals forward. Some hopes were raised in the early days after the decision to extend the movement beyond the Anglican Church. But it became apparent that the Servants of Christ the King were unique. They offered something important in the life of the church: a structured way of waiting on God together, listening to God and one another, and acting together on the outcome of the prayer and the listening. They wanted this to continue.

Eventually it became clear that the Servants of Christ the King could not go on as an organisation. The priority was now to leave something for those who would come after. Perhaps someone might learn from the experience of this movement and apply what they learned to their own times and circumstances.

The movement commissioned Brian Bridge, its former Warden, to write a book on the history of the Servants of Christ the King. Treasury of Blessings: The Servants of Christ the King 1943–2014 was published in 2015. You can download a copy from this website.

Some of the movement’s archives had already been deposited in Lambeth Palace Library in 2004. The remainder will be deposited there in 2020. Researchers and other members of the public will be able to access these archives by visiting the library.

Finally, the trustees of the Servants of Christ the King commissioned an icon of Christ washing the feet of Saint Peter which is now in Canterbury Cathedral. The icon was dedicated and installed in January 2019. It is located in the Lady Undercroft Chapel, a special place of quiet prayer for visitors to the Cathedral.