A Brief History of the Church Club
Condensed from Ronald B. Young’s supplemental materials to the History of The Church Club of New York
The Church Club of New York was founded in 1887 by a group of committed laymen as a forum for theological education and social interaction. They sought to give the laity a voice in the affairs of the diocese, separate from individual parishes.
Prominent Club members, including J.P. Morgan, who was senior warden at St. George’s Church, were instrumental in funding a number of diocesan projects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
The Club’s Gilded Age-to-Jazz Age heyday was one of white-tie dinners at the Waldorf-Astoria and an annual series of theological lectures by American and British scholars.
World War II and After
During the war years, the Club maintained its activities, including the annual dinner, but the menu was reduced “to complete simplicity.” The Club attracted important speakers for these wartime dinners, including Viscount Halifax, British Ambassador to the United States, in 1942.
The Church Club is the proud owner of an autograph manuscript of Samuel John Stone’s famous hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.” Click on the image for more information and pictures.
Club members were prominent in the affairs of the national Episcopal Church. In 1940, General Convention adopted a flag and seal, designed by William M. Baldwin. The proposal to adopt them had been spearheaded by Clifford Morehouse, editor of the The Living Church and member of the Church Club.
Not by Bread Alone
The Club’s programs in the 1940s and ’50s did not consist only of formal dinners. Education of the laity remained central to the mission. The Club began a series of round-table events during which a speaker would introduce a topic followed by a discussion. Professor Powel Mills Dawley of the General Theological Seminary spoke on the ecumenical movements. Another event featured discussion of the 1946 General Convention and the Church’s new marriage canon, which liberalized the regulations with respect to remarriage after divorce.
Chosen Forum for Bishops
Bishops in the 1950s and ’60s used Church Club events to make important public statements, intended for both the diocese and the wider civic community. Bishop Horace Donegan even referred to the annual dinners as “a diocesan family gathering.”
In January 1953 Bishop Donegan caused a public sensation when he told the Church Club that New York City “has fallen on evil days.” The city, he said, was tolerating sub-standard housing. There was overcrowding in the public schools and problems with the Board of Education. Police protection was inadequate, especially in Morningside Heights around the cathedral, and there was an extensive waterfront racket that controlled the docks.
Bishop Donegan urged that all faiths join in the fight to curb the city’s evils. The New York Times, The World-Telegram and Sun and the Herald Tribune all carried editorials praising the bishop’s appeal. The result was an interfaith council that investigated the causes of municipal deterioration.
A year later, Bishop Donegan addressed his remarks to the role of the Episcopal Church in contemporary society. He told the members and guests that the Episcopal Church must face change. The church must adjust to the changing ethnic make-up of New York City even if it becomes necessary “to sacrifice much that is time honored.”
In the 1960s, Church Club dinners were awash with visiting bishops, archbishops, and primates. Dr. Fisher, the retired archbishop of Canterbury and now ennobled as Lord Fisher of Lambeth, was the guest of honor at a dinner at the Pierre Hotel in 1962. Fisher’s pithy humor was very popular with the audience. A few years later, Presiding Bishop John Hines was the guest. In 1966 there was a special dinner at the University Club to hear the Bishop of London, Robert Stopford. And a year later, Michael Ramsey, the archbishop of Canterbury, returned to address the Club.
Women Join In
One important change the Club faced with an honorable and gracious manner was the issue of membership for women. The debate crystallized in the early 1970s. Peter Megaree Brown, elected President in 1972, believed that the Club would benefit greatly in vitality in spirit if qualified women were admitted to membership. But the issue remained divisive, as the Club had been a gentlemen’s enclave since 1887.
President Brown urged the Trustees to begin a full and frank discussion of the subject. They took-up the task over the next few years and examined all the arguments. The vote was put to the membership at its annual meeting in 1975. Arguments were made, a vote taken, and proxies mailed. The meeting produced only two negative votes. When the final tally was counted the Club had voted overwhelmingly in favor of admitting women by the margin of 227 to 13.
Women quickly become an important part of the Club, participating in all aspects of its common life. By the end of the twentieth century almost half the membership of the Church Club of New York were women, and in the first decade of the next century the Club elected Grace Allen as its president.
Archbishop Carey was the guest at the annual dinner in 2000, speaking about the role and contribution of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion: “Let me say without hesitation that your church has been an enormous support to the work of the Communion. It has assisted me in my leadership, and has enabled the structure of our communion to bring cohesion and solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the globe.”
The Most Rev. Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland addressed the 2004 annual dinner. Eames had been intimately involved with the peace process in his troubled homeland, and he had become the designated troubleshooter of the Anglican Communion.
Eames’ addresses to the Club dealt the latest crisis in the Anglican Communion – the issue of sexuality. Nonetheless, he was hopeful for the future of the communion. He said, “The real progress towards peace in my country came when people stopped shouting at each other and began listening to each other. And I believe that within the world Anglican family we may have to learn that again tonight.” He thought the communion had a “pretty good future” because he believed in the distinctive Anglican contribution to the global Christian message.
The Church Club of New York has now passed its 126th year. The Club has continued with its purpose of being a significant social and education organization for active Episcopalians in the New York region. It has continued to engage the church issues of the day and to serve the Church by helping to form an educated laity.
But the Episcopal Church of the early twenty-first century is radically different from the Episcopal Church of the late nineteenth century. The membership of the Church Club is quite different in character from that of the early period. Throughout its history, the Club has balanced the value of tradition with engagement with the contemporary church and society.