At the invitation of Alistair McKitterick, Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical and Theological Studies, two British Orthodox priests delivered lectures this month to students at Moorlands Bible College, Sopley, Christchurch, Hampshire. On 5 November Father Peter Farrington lectured on prayer and one week later, 12 November, Father Simon Smyth gave a richly illustrated presentation on icons.
Introducing himself as both a former Moorlands student (from the late ‘eighties) and a former evangelical Christian enabled his evangelical audience to more easily relate to Father Peter and more easily identify with his lecture. Referring to the teaching of Evagrius that if “you are a theologian you truly pray” and if “you truly pray you are a theologian” Father Peter emphasised the importance of knowing God through the encounter in prayer rather than academically knowing things about God. The lecture ranged through Saints Cyril of Jerusalem, John Cassian, John Chrysostom, Moses the Black and others, referring also to the contemporary Orthodox writings of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Father Peter was careful to emphasise the apophatic approach and how closer encounters with God in prayer contrast with the modern tendency to almost analyse or understand God. In a wide ranging talk Father Peter also spoke on the importance of fasting and, of course, the Jesus Prayer.
Father Simon gave his presentation on icons at Moorlands for the fifth time (first visiting the college in 2009). The classic text of Saint John of Damascus was discussed and the Incarnation emphasised again and again as the requirement for icons: the “very heart of Christianity is Christ, God incarnate, God made flesh…. To see Jesus is to see the (otherwise) invisible God.” The union of God with man in accordance with the teaching of Saint Cyril the Great of Alexandria was emphasised. “To speak His Name is to speak the Name of God. To see His Face is to see the Face of God. To depict Him is to depict God.” Several icons were analysed in more detail including a modern icon of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ:
And an icon of the Apocalypse:
Several different icons of the Good Shepherd were contrasted, then of Saint Moses the Black and also of Saint Simon the Tanner; 12 November being the first of the three days added to the Advent Fast in perpetual memory of the three days of fasting and Saint Simon’s part in God’s miraculous deliverance of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the tenth century.
Some students however acceptable they found the theology of the presentation clearly struggled with an emotional response to the idea of kissing an icon. Father Simon’s honesty in frankly acknowledging (though now the most natural thing in the world for him) how difficult he had once found it, with his then evangelical protestant background, to force himself to first kiss an icon seemed to help facilitate discussion around this. The session finished with all present each sitting in prayerful silence for a few minutes before an icon of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.