Monday, February 23, 2015

The Most Wonderful, Most Stunning, Most Splendid, Most Bestest Cathedral that You’ve Never Heard Of!

This picture is in honor of all the snow we've had this week!

That would be Ely Cathedral!

Ely is a small market town in Cambridgeshire, on a small rise in the fens of East Anglia.

St. Etheldreda founded an abbey there in AD 673.  The abbey was destroyed in 870 by Danish marauders, but was rebuilt by Ethelwold, the Bishop of Winchester, in 970.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1083 by the first Norman Bishop of Ely, Simon.  The history of its ongoing construction is too vast to be chronicled here.  Most dramatically, however, on the night of February 12-13, 1322, the original central tower built over the crossing collapsed, causing significant damage but causing no casualties since it happened at night.  In its place, Alan of Walsingham designed and built an octagon lantern to replace the fallen tower that soars above the crossing like a bejeweled diadem.  It has been described as one of the most singular achievements of architectural genius found in cathedrals throughout the UK. 

Along with the Lantern, construction on other aspects of the cathedral were ongoing throughout the medieval period.  Notably, the chantry chapels were added by wealthy patrons whose bequests covered the cost of having a priest regularly say mass on behalf of their souls, as well as creating beautiful chapels around their tombs in which these masses were said.

Building projects continued until under orders of Henry VIII the abbey was dissolved in 1539.  The architect George Gilbert Scott oversaw a massive restoration project from 1845-1870.  Ely Cathedral continues as the Bishop’s Seat for the Diocese of Ely in the Church of England.

My all-time favorite day out is to take the train from Cambridge to Ely (a fifteen minute ride maybe). Walk from the train station to the wonderfully named River Ouse (think Ooze), where there is a small marina and canal boats and pubs and restaurants and parks and helpful signs telling one more than one ever wanted to know about eels.  From there it is a short walk past tidy houses and medieval facades to the Cathedral Square.  At one end is a house where Oliver Cromwell lived.  Ely Cathedral escaped the depredations that many other Church of England cathedrals suffered during the English Civil Wars and Cromwell’s Protectorship, probably because of his association with the town.  After a tour of the cathedral (I’ve been on a lot and each one has been worth it!), it’s time to seek out the real reason for coming to Ely ;-) – a trip to the Almonry Tea House to have either tea and scones or, even better, brambleberry and apple pie with ice cream, all whilst sitting outside in a lovely garden in the shadow of the cathedral and its Lady Chapel.  A walk past the abbey ruins and the bishop’s residence on the way back to the train station just about undoes me every time because of the beauty unfurled with every step.  Or maybe that’s just the effect that brambleberry apple pie has on my brain.

Here are some pictures.  They really can’t do the place justice.  You’ve got to go there and experience it all in person.  Pie included.

Ely Cathedral has been called 'The Ship of the Fens'

The cathedral sits in the middle of the small market town of Ely
Ely Cathedral was one of the largest buildings north of the Alps when it was built.
It's the fourth longest cathedral in the UK.  It just goes on and on.
One approaches the western doors from Cathedral Square.
The Cromwells lived nearby.
Once you enter the Great Western Doors, and pass under the tower and into the nave,
you enter a space designed to reflect the Trinity-centered world of the Bible.  All that's missing here
is the riot of color from the paintings and decorations of the medieval church, all removed after
the English reformations.
The ceiling above the nave is Victorian
but is exquisite nonetheless.
The view from the crossing under the Lantern into the choir to the high altar.
With the choir to your back, looking past the crossing with the Lantern above down the nave
Ely Cathedral's glorious Lantern
A chantry chapel off to one side.
St. Etheldreda, whose abbey got things going 1300+ years ago.
There's a lot more, but I think I'm overwhelmed by it all and need something to help me recover.
So I think I'll just amble over through the gardens to one of my favorite tea houses anywhere.
There it is, The Almonry.  I'd like a spot of tea, please.
A scone with clotted cream and jam, and maybe a flapjack...
Or maybe a piece of brambleberry apple pie?
I think I'll be ok now.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

History, Tradition and Legend: Some Issues and Thoughts concerning the Acts 8 Account of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

I am working on a lecture to be given next week on the Origins of Christianity in Africa.  More specifically, I’ll be looking at how Christianity came to the Axumite Empire under the emperor Ezana in the first half of the fourth century.  This story is not widely known, but is well-attested by contemporary and verifiable evidence.  So it makes a good subject for a university audience, introducing an exotic (for an American audience) topic and bringing everyone up to date on the current state of the discussion around it.

But the minute one presumes to say something about the ‘origins of Christianity in Africa’, one wades into intractable controversy.  Because wasn’t ‘Africa’ ‘evangelized’ by the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch?  I put all three in quotations for a reason, because each one represents assumptions that may or may not be true, or at least misleading.

First, there is an account in the Book of Acts where the apostle Philip meets and evangelizes an individual who is described this way: ‘And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure.  He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.’ (Acts 8:27-28 ESV)  The challenge when reading a passage like this is that we are often limited by our own experiences or perspectives in how we choose to interpret this.  Take the term ‘Ethiopian’, for example.  Most today would without hesitation assume that by ‘Ethiopian’, Luke means someone from ‘Ethiopia’, which we would equate with modern day Ethiopia.  But in New Testament days, there was no such place as ‘Ethiopia’.  ‘Ethiopian’ is a Greek word that at its origins meant ‘burnt face’, i.e., dark-skinned.  So while Luke knows precisely what he is talking about, our own presuppositions tend to jump in and confuse matters.

A second issue has to do with the person the eunuch is serving.  In contemporary English translations of the New Testament, Luke describes this person as ‘Candace, queen of the Ethiopians’.  Once again, our first inclination is to interpret ‘Candace’ as a proper name, just as we might say, ‘Charles, Prince of Wales’.  However, there is no record of there being any queen named Candace in this part of the world during this time.  Because of this, we might be tempted to think Luke was fabricating ‘history’.  But a little digging uncovers the interesting fact that ‘Candace’ refers not to a person, but to a title – Kandake.  Further exploration reveals that Kandake refers to a woman who ruled either as a regent during the minority of her son, or as empress in her own right.  Moreover, the Kandake ruled, not over ‘Ethiopia’, but most likely over Meroe, a kingdom south of Egypt at the confluence of the Tacassi and the Nile rivers.

An artist's rendering of the Kandake

We are not told anything else in Luke’s account.  We don’t know what happened to the man.  We don’t know if he became an evangelist for his new faith, and if so, if he met with any success amongst his own people.  We are not told if any new churches were started as a result of his efforts.  We are just given his singular example of an African man responding to the good news explained by Philip.

So here is a case where we have textual evidence (the Book of Acts) of the conversion of an African man who was an official of the Kandake of Meroe.  And while we do not have corroborating evidence that would enable us to say this absolutely happened, we also do not have evidence that would cause us to question the veracity of Luke’s account.

So, ‘All’s well that ends well’?  Um, no.  Of course.

When I was living in Addis Ababa, I had the privilege of meeting the then Abuna Paulos (of blessed memory) in his reception room along with a group of students from my daughter’s school.  On one of the walls was a beautiful icon of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.  Turns out, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) officially traces their origin to the conversion of this man as recorded by Luke.  Christianity was then brought to Ethiopia, and through his efforts the church had its beginnings here.

With His Holiness the Abuna Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

And if that were not enough, Eusebius writes in his Ecclesiastical History (NFNP2-01):

But as the preaching of the Saviour’s Gospel was daily advancing, a certain providence led from the land of the Ethiopians an officer of the queen of that country, for Ethiopia even to the present day is ruled, according to ancestral custom, by a woman.  He, first among the Gentiles, received of the mysteries of the divine word from Philip in consequence of a revelation, and having become the first-fruits of believers throughout the world, he is said to have been the first on returning to his country to proclaim the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving sojourn of our Saviour among men; so that through him in truth the prophecy obtained its fulfillment, which declares that ‘Ethiopia stretches out her hand unto God.’

In this case, the Tradition held by the EOTC and also found in Eusebius indicates that the man converted under Philip’s ministry went on to be the means of the gospel coming to the ‘Ethiopians’.  There are several options as to what’s going on here. 

First, the gospel may indeed have first been brought to Ethiopia by this official.  He may have preached among his own people, and his preaching may have resulted in conversions.  And churches may have been established.  In which case he would have been the apostle to the Ethiopians, and the icon in the Abuna’s reception hall would be accurately presenting the origin of the EOTC.

Secondly, the gospel may indeed have been brought to ‘Ethiopians’ by the official, but the ‘Ethiopians’ of these early documents in no way correspond to the way we today understand ‘Ethiopians’ to be.  If this is the case, then it is plausible that Eusebius is passing on accurate information about the origins of a church among the ‘Ethiopians.’  It’s just that his use of Ethiopian corresponds to historical Meroe and the surrounding peoples along the upper Nile and its tributaries.  This would mean that there is probably no continuity between the events recorded in Acts 8 and the origins of the EOTC.  This also does not imply that there is historical continuity between Acts 8 and the later Christian kingdoms along the Nile that persisted until the fourteenth century.

The al-Ghazali Monastery in Nubia, northern Sudan, which dates from the early 7th century,

Thirdly, both Eusebius and Ethiopian tradition may be involved in reconstructing history/tradition by word association.  Eusebius is aware of the prophecy in Isaiah concerning ‘Ethiopia will stretch forth her hand to God’.  And the story of the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch’s conversion may be too tempting a plot line not to fill out in order to ‘prove’ the fulfillment of prophecy.  The same with the EOTC.  There may be an eagerness to view any biblical reference to ‘Ethiopia’ or to ‘Ethiopians’ as referring to contemporary Ethiopia.  But as we have seen, ‘Ethiopia’ does not necessarily mean ‘Ethiopia’, and an ‘Ethiopian’ is not necessarily an ‘Ethiopian’

Nubian Bishop and the Theotokos

Among the challenges posed here is to figure out the difference between legitimate Tradition (that which is handed down from the Apostles to the present day and which is authoritative for the Church) and legend.  Eusebius is writing some three hundred years after the events he discusses.  What are his sources, and are they conveying information that is accurate, or are they taking liberty with the historical record for polemical reasons?  And the same questions need to be asked of the EOTC’s tradition concerning the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch.  What are their sources?  Do they reflect unbroken ‘Tradition’ from the event itself.  Or do the sources betray a fabrication of history, again for polemical purposes?

Nubian - from a 9th century icon of the Resurrection

The great problem here is that we just don’t know.  We ourselves are not acquainted with the sources used either by Eusebius or by the EOTC.  We cannot therefore make a judgment based on evidence, one way or another.  What we are left with are our own prejudices – the very things we are inclined to accuse our ancient sources of harboring.  So while it is not safe to verify the accounts presented by Eusebius and the EOTC of the connection between Acts 8 and Ethiopian Christianity, it is also unsafe to nullify those accounts.  We are already aware of how easy it is to misinterpret passages because we aren’t fully acquainted with what certain significant words (in this case, ’Candace’ or ‘Ethiopian’) mean in their context.  This makes (or at least should make) us cautious of being too quick to dismiss a Scripture passage or a Church Tradition as being in error.  It is just as likely that we will be the ones shown to be in error when all is said and done.

Columns from a church in old Dongola, capital of the Christian kingdom of Makuria

So at the present time, we can say that the Acts 8 account of the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch likely refers to an African man serving in the court of the Kandake of Meroe in present-day Sudan.  Eusebius, and the Tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church recount that this man’s subsequent ministry resulted in Christianity being introduced to the Ethiopians.  Presently, there is no corroborating evidence of a mid- to late-first century church in Axum or areas that might plausibly be considered to be ‘Ethiopia’ at the time.  However, as is often said, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  It just means that we can only report the claims, the issues and the current state of the evidence as they presently are.  Which means the most we can say currently with respect to Acts 8 and the origins of the Ethiopian Church is a resounding if unsatisfying ‘maybe’.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Hard Work of Getting There

Christ is in our midst!

I wrote my PhD thesis on Richard Baxter, who was a Church of England pastor during the most tumultuous decade of England’s revolutionary 17th century.  His book, The Reformed Pastor (1656), became the most influential book in English on pastoral ministry for the next three centuries.  Baxter was absolutely convinced that the spiritual growth, what he called the ‘reformation’ of the parish, was dependent upon the reformation or transformation of the priest.  A priest who was ignorant or was spiritually unconcerned would inevitably lead his parish away from Christ.  Whereas a priest who was himself a committed disciple of Christ, whose heart was tender, teachable and growing in Christ – this kind of shepherd God could use to bless His people (see my book Reformation Pastors: Richard Baxter and the Ideal of the Reformed Pastor, 2004).

One thing led to another
This was born out in Baxter’s own remarkable ministry in the town of Kidderminster.  And successive generations have proven the worth of Baxter’s take on the priest’s and pastor’s call.  Churches served by ignorant, corrupt or uncommitted ministers tend not to thrive, whereas churches led by clergy who are educated, committed and themselves growing in Christ tend to experience what Baxter calls ‘reformation’.

Nairobi Orthodox seminary students and faculty with his Eminence Makarios Archbishop of Kenya and his Beatitude Theodros, Patriarch of Alexandria

This is why I am so passionate about theological education in Kenya.  We have the opportunity for these brief couple of years to engage and train the next generation of ministers for Christ’s Church, not just across Kenya but across sub-Saharan Africa as well.  Our input now will have a strategic impact, not just on the lives of these men, but on the hundreds and thousands of the faithful whom they serve.  The history of modern warfare teaches us that if one sends out soldiers who are poorly equipped into battle, then that battle is lost before it is even begun.  And in a religious landscape riven by heresies, corruption and ignorance, we who are so resource-rich have the opportunity to help our brothers and sisters in Kenya get the kind of education and equipping they so desperately need to lead God’s Churches there.

This is Kibera in Nairobi.  There is an Orthodox Church here.  The priest was trained at our seminary.  He also took classes from me at St. Paul's University as he worked on his BA.

As you know, I have been invited by His Eminence Makarios, the Archbishop of Kenya, to serve under his omophorion as Lecturer in History and Theology at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi.  I’ve also been invited to resume my position as Senior Lecturer in History and Theology  at St. Paul’s University in Limuru and Nairobi.  At both institutions I will be helping to train the next generation of leaders for God’s churches.  Like Baxter, I believe that helping these men to grow in Christ and equipping them to help the people in their churches grow in Christ is the most strategic investment one can make.

Yours truly teach a seminar on Christology at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Some of you are making that investment already, helping me by becoming monthly supporters of my missionary work in Kenya.  Others have joined my support team by committing to pray for me, my work and my students.  Presently I can account for 60% of the support I need.  That means I need to come up with more than 40% before I can return to Nairobi and take up my calling there.  Would you pray about joining my support team?  In particular, I need people willing to become monthly contributors for the next two years.  Some could give $100 or more a month; some perhaps $50/month; others $25/month.  You can start right now – just follow this link to my OCMC webpage and follow the instructions when you click on the ‘support’ button at the bottom of the page: .

With my students in remote SW Ethiopia to see first hand the situation with the churches there.

I currently need another 26 people who are willing to give $100/month if my participation in this work is to become a reality.  This seems impossible from where I stand right now.  But then every step I’ve taken over this past year has seemed impossible to me.  I’ve always known that when God calls, He also provides.  Even if I cannot fathom how.

With my students in the field (which, by the way, are white with harvest).

Thank you so much for walking with a praying me through these past months.  I actually have much to thank God for right here and now while I wait to see how God answers prayers concerning my support.  First, I was asked by our local YMCA to come back to the job from which I was downsized last year.  This has given me an income while I walk through my own season of transition.  I am thankful to God that I have the means to pay my bills.  Secondly, and most importantly, my daughter Caroline and her beau Will announced their engagement before Christmas and plan to marry on May 23 in Orlando, FL!  I am so happy for them! (And grateful to have a job so that I can do my part to cover their wedding expenses!).

One final goal for prayer:  If my support comes in this Spring, I am hoping to make my transition to Kenya after Caroline and Will’s wedding in late May/early June.  Please pray with me to this end.

Thanks so much for your support and your prayers.


Tentative Travel Schedule – Come and see me!
Feb 7, Saturday             Hilton Head Island Marathon
Feb 8, Sunday               Holy Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church, Hilton Head, SC
Feb 10, Tuesday            St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church, Watkinsville, GA
Feb 10, Tuesday            University of Georgia, Athens, GA, Lecture
Feb 14-15, Sat-Sun        St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church, Souderton, PA
Feb 27, Friday               University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, Lecture
Mar 15, Sunday             St. Mary Orthodox Church (OCA), Falls Church, VA
Mar 27, Friday              University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, Presenter
Apr 25-26 Sat-Sun        Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Linthicum, MD
May 3, Sunday              St. Luke Orthodox Church (OCA), McLean, VA 
May 23, Saturday          Caroline and Will’s Wedding!  Orlando, FL
End of May???              Leave for Nairobi???

I am available to come and speak at your Church or your group.  Email me at and we can make plans.

With my daughter Linnea after we ran the 'Marine Corps Historic Half' Half Marathon in Fredericksburg, VA last year.  The race on Saturday will be a bit longer.

Orthodox Christian Mission Center
220 Mason Manatee Way, St. Augustine, FL 32086
(877) GO FORTH (463-6784)