Robert Beaken on the Nikaean Club which has promoted the ideals of Christian unity for over 80 years
The year 1925 saw the 1,600th anniversary of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325, which, among other achievements, gave us the Nicene Creed. Had the conditions in Russia or Constantinople allowed it, there would probably have been a great celebration on Orthodox soil; but in 1925 the Russian Orthodox Church was traumatized by the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent persecution, and in Constantinople the Ecumenical Patriarch found himself in a very delicate position following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Atatürk’s rise to power. In Rome, Pius XI was still a ‘Prisoner in the Vatican’ and unlikely to enter into any celebration of the anniversary with other Christian Churches.
Service of thanksgiving
The idea grew of holding a special celebration in London. Canon John Douglas, a south London vicar with considerable ecumenical experience,
took soundings among the different Orthodox Churches, and Bishop Arthur Winnington-Ingram of London despatched invitations to the ten autocephalous Orthodox Churches, nearly all of whom managed to send delegations to London. The most notable delegates were the Patriarchs Photios of Alexandria and Damianos of Jerusalem, Russian Metropolitans (outside Russia) Eulogius, and Antony of Kieff, and representatives of the Greek and Rumanian Orthodox Churches.
A service of thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey on St Peter’s Day in 1925. In addition to the Orthodox delegates, twenty Anglican archbishops and bishops were present, as well as Mar Shimun, the Assyrian Patriarch, a representative of the Armenian Church, and the Lutheran Archbishop Soderblöm of Upsala.
The Creed was recited during the service in English in its Western form, and in Greek by the Patriarch of Alexandria according to the Orthodox use, without the filioque clause. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, preached the sermon:
It is no ordinary congregation which is gathered in this hallowed place, surrounded by the memorials of those who in storm and sunshine, have in their varied ways taken the lead in making history…Circumspice. These chairs and stalls have many unaccustomed occupants. Some of them are the lineal successors of the very men who met in conclave at Nicaea from the dioceses and cities of the East sixteen centuries ago. They are here to join with our own their prayers, their thanksgivings, their credal testimony of loyalty to our living Lord. It is well that they should be here. It touches us profoundly that, when we resolved to commemorate the far-off Council to which we owe, in one of its several varieties of phrase, the actual Creed or symbol which forms the basis of our own, they should have expressed a desire to join with us here to pray, to stand with us here to join our solemn declaration of Faith in Him.
Building on the momentum
The practical arrangements for accommodation and meals for the delegates were undertaken by Canon John Douglas, his brother the Revd Charles Douglas, and a group of friends and colleagues. A dinner for the participants was held after the service in Westminster Abbey, presided over by Lord Selborne.
As Charles Douglas somewhat ponderously explained, ‘it seemed expedient that the opportunity should be given to the prelates thereat assembled to exchange personal greetings in public under conditions which were less formal than those of a Church service.’
So successful was the 1925 commemoration of the Council of Nicaea that it was felt by Canon Douglas and his helpers that a way should be found to build on the momentum: the result was the establishment the next year of the Nikaean Club. In the earliest days, the arrangements were of the simplest kind. Life membership was open to any suitable Anglican for half a guinea and the main functions were arranging dinners and finding a distinguished layman to act as President. It was initially financed largely by another of the Douglas brothers’ creations, the Society of the Faith. The membership in the years after the Second World War included notable figures such as John Betjeman, Rose Macaulay, Osbert Lancaster and Dorothy L. Sayers.
The Nikaean Club today
The Nikaean Club’s constitution today states that it exists to help the Archbishop of Canterbury in his ecumenical work by offering hospitality and friendship to visitors from other non-Anglican Christian Churches and assisting students from such Churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the President of the Club. The ‘Guestmaster’ is his Chaplain and Ecumenical Officer, whose function is to offer advice with regard to hospitality. Under the Constitution the management of the Club’s affairs is in the hands of an Executive Committee composed of a Chairman, Honorary Treasurer, Secretary and six elected members, plus the Guestmaster. The Club has over 350 members who have a wide range of ecumenical experience and expertise, which they can make available.
The Nikaean Club hosts regular dinners and receptions throughout the year when distinguished guests from Britain and overseas are entertained. From time to time lunches or other hospitality are arranged at short notice for ecumenical visitors. The Club also organizes a number of services during the year. Membership of the Club is open to Anglicans in communion with the See of Canterbury who have a demonstrable interest in the ecumenical movement. Application forms for membership of the Nikaean Club are available from the Honorary Secretary at Lambeth Palace and names should be proposed and seconded by members of the Club and shall be considered and voted upon by members of the Executive Committee.
In the early 1990s, some members of the Nikaean Club founded a charitable trust which would help to finance study trips made by members of overseas Christian Churches to this country. They were conscious at that time of a lack of funding within the Church of England for this very important field of ecumenical work. This is still true to a large extent today.
Founded in 1992 and relaunched in 2002, the Nikaean Ecumenical
Trust aims to advance the Christian religion by fostering good ecumenical relations between all Christian Churches and particularly between the Church of England and Christian Churches overseas. It is still closely associated with the Nikaean Club and shares its vision. The Trust’s current Chairman is Bishop Geoffrey Rowell.
In practical terms, the Trust pursues its objects by awarding grants to clergy and laity from overseas Churches (mainly, but not exclusively, the Orthodox Churches) to enable them to spend some time in this country furthering their theological, pastoral or vocational training in a setting where there are active links with the Church of England. This might mean, for example, a term at an Anglican theological college or a few weeks in a Church of England placement. Grants are also available towards a package of funding for a longer course of theological study in this country, although candidates are not expected to become permanent residents in the UK. Typically, grants are in the range of £500–£2,000 and are normally made on a one-off basis. However, eligible candidates may reapply. Enquiries should be made to the Honorary Secretary, Mrs Margery Roberts (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Every applicant needs to submit a letter of recommendation from his/her church leader. Application forms are available from the Honorary Secretary and applications are considered by the full trustee body. Although the Trust has managed to raise a good deal of money since its relaunch in 2002, there remains a considerable need for more funding. Donations are warmly welcomed.
These are not easy years for Church unity. After several decades of convergence, there is evidence that the Christian Churches are going through a time of divergence. No one could doubt, though, that unity is the will of Christ for his Church, and the very real achievement of the past half century should not be underestimated. Through prayer, fellowship and study, the Nikaean Club and Trust have sought for over eighty years to promote the ideals of Christian unity. As Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor once memorably observed in Pusey House, in the ecumenical journey, doctrinal agreement is important, but then again, so is sharing a bowl of pasta and perhaps a glass of wine. ND