“Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future…the past. Old friends long gone.”
‘I’d rather be out telling people about Jesus than here learning what a load of old dead guys think.’
My friend was one of the most extraordinary people you could meet. He was fun, a gifted evangelist and had an intensity about prayer that was inspiring. He was (and is) one of the best examples of Pentecostal activism that you could hope to meet. I hope that my church and ministry more generally can one day be as full of life and hope as his. Yet here he was questioning the value of theology generally, and historical theology more specifically. I didn’t know what to say immediately – his thoughts reflected some of my own, with the caveat that I would have encouraged more direct study of Scripture using concordances etc. Yet somehow I knew that there was more to this than he allowed.
Months passed and my friend left college. I don’t doubt it was the right decision for him – he has already planted another church and his ministry seems to be flourishing. Meanwhile I had begun my Early Church History module.
I was investigating the extent to which the church practised infant baptism before 325. I read fairly deeply into not only the New Testament but also the writings of the pre-Nicene fathers, analysing their references to baptism and engaging with the historical scholarship. As I was doing so I realised that I was changing. Put bluntly, at any earlier time in my life I would not have cared what early Christians thought or did – my only concern was ‘is it in the Bible?’ Yet now I found myself saying to my friends that if I concluded that infant baptism was an original practice of the church then I would seriously consider converting to a paedo-baptist tradition.
At the time I did not properly understand the shift in my thinking. I did know that historical theological and ecclesiological questions were becoming more and more important to me. My answer to my friend had changed: these dead guys were not irrelevant – they were the ones who handed on the faith to us, the same faith which I wanted to practise. In short, they were my fathers.
Spurgeon’s College is located at the top of a hill in South Norwood, a part of London that used to be a haven from which people could escape the smog. Now, the relentless expansion of the city has swallowed it and the surrounding boroughs up and linked them together. For those interested, the College is about a 10 minute walk from Selhurst Park where Crystal Palace FC play.
Most students studying at Spurgeon’s are placed in churches, often a long way from the College, where they live and work for at least three days a week. A handful stay in College overnight but most go home and there is no catering etc in the evenings. Generally, if you stayed on into the evening you banded together in a kind of Baptist wolf-pack to scavenge for food or, failing that, go to the pub or the supermarket.
It was on one of these trips that I walked past the old church.
I say ‘walked past’. To be honest I was in a hurry – I’d had a long day in lectures and wanted my dinner. The welcoming amber glow of an array of ready-meals and sandwiches called to me and I willingly responded. I allowed myself to be swept along with the current of busy, hungry people when I almost fell to the ground.
I stumbled and looked at the small old lady hurrying across the pavement and interrupting the flow of human traffic. I apologised (I’m English) and looked up. She was going into the same old church that I had passed many times before. It was unobtrusive and, on the outside, possessing a kind of weariness and sadness of a building that seemed to have withstood wars and the weather only to be defeated by human apathy. The doors were never open. Never. Yet today was different.
I glanced inside. It was unlike any church I had ever seen – beautiful in a way that seemed somehow to transcend the humility of its exterior and the dirt and decay of South London. I don’t mean that it looked nice or impressive; many churches and other buildings look impressive. It was like being transported.
Then the door shut.
I went on my way and tried to focus on other things. Yet on trains, in lectures, in bed, all I could think about was that church. I returned often but never found the doors open again It turned out it was a Greek Orthodox church and so I began to read about Orthodoxy. Eventually I read Kallistos Ware’s excellent introduction, The Orthodox Church, and finally began to understand.
 Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)