A blog by the Founding Principal of IOCS

“Reaping with Joy”: IOCS at 25

The Very Revd Dr John Jillions is one of the founders and the first Principal of IOCS (1997-2003). He now serves as a Visiting Professor and a member of the Board of Directors. He has degrees from McGill University (BA), St Vladimir’s Seminary (MDiv, DMin), and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (PhD). From 2003 to 2012 he taught at the Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies, Saint Paul University, and the University of Ottawa. Subsequently he was Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America (2011-2018), taught at St Vladimir’s Seminary as Associate Professor of Religion and Culture, and as an adjunct at Fordham University. He is the author of Divine Guidance: Lessons for Today from the World of Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2020).  Fr John has been a priest for forty years, serving communities in Australia, Greece, England, Canada, and the US. He is Vice-President of the Orthodox Theological Society in America.

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November 28, 1996

Our celebration of American Thanksgiving tomorrow will be in Oxford with other American ex-pats: Bishop Basil (Osborne), Fr Stephen and Anne Headley and their children, Fr John Lee and his family, and Kelsey Cheshire and her daughter. Right now, I still find it impossible to pray, though reading psalms is a big help (except that they also stir up self-pitying thoughts of being persecuted). I say the words, but they barely come out. I feel such a crushing weight on my chest.  “He is full of heaviness; thy rebuke has broken his heart.” I still find myself going over the ground of my rejection again and again. What did I do wrong? Where can I go? How to distinguish between what is really my problem—and correctible—and what is the result of other factors? Or should I consider whether God has some other plan? I’m not bitter, although part of me admits wanting to do well out of spite. Is this the weight that keeps me from praying? I just don’t know. Perhaps it’s best to:

  1. Accept this as an opportunity for repentance; consider what in me needs correction (the “log in my own eye”).
  2. Look for opportunities—eventually—to remain connected with SVS and do good.
  3. Refuse to speak out of anger, bitterness, envy.
  4. Immerse myself in productive work.
  5. “Look to the interests of others.” Do good. Find opportunities to serve.
  6. Pray for others. St John of Kronstadt: “The prayer of a priest for men has great power with God, if only the priest calls on the Lord with his whole heart, with faith and love.”

November 30, 1996. St Andrew.

Andrew and I are staying with the Headleys, in the old house of  Nicholas and Militza Zernov in Oxford. Andrew is still sleeping, and I write here under a huge old print of Moscow. Last evening we were all at Bishop Basil’s for Thanksgiving dinner. As Anthony walked into the home he whispered to Denise, “This is my dreamhouse!” The fire in the grate, the walls filled with paintings, portraits, art of all kinds, little tables here and there with overflowing potted plants and artistic additions and sculptures, the high ceiling, a long table and two elaborate Victorian silver candelabras, the old and comfortable furniture, very worn. All this made an atmosphere of welcoming and warmth.

Bishop Basil, predictably reserved, had no immediate reaction to my news from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. However, Fr Stephen Headley (SVS ’69) has been living in France for many years and was counselling me to stay in Europe. “You can do so much more here than if you go back to the US.” Later, when I simply asked about having a seminary in England, he said, “You should run with that. It needs an American kind of push to get it going. Bishop Kallistos and everyone has been talking about this for years.” He said it would need a strong correspondence component. “St Serge Institute in Paris has a successful correspondence program with 300 students. And it provides a fulltime salary for the priest who runs it.” As he sees it, something like this could be run from Cambridge. At the same time this would give Cambridge the fulltime priest it needs (right now Bishop Basil serves liturgy there on a Saturday once a month at St Edmund’s College). This might be needed, but I’m not convinced it’s for me.

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In September 1999, after more than two years of preparation IOCS began with a wonderful sense of promise and purpose. Like any institution it has seen its share of challenges, but by the grace of God IOCS has continued serving students and scholars from the UK and around the world for twenty-five years. It has had some remarkable founders, teachers, and benefactors, most notably the late Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, who was the guiding force and chairman for most of its history.  I offered to write a series of posts for this anniversary year about that critical founding period from late 1996 to the opening in 1999.  I kept a personal journal all through that time which I have excerpted for this series.

As the Institute was first conceived, began taking shape, and then was born there was a consistent thread of wonder as doors opened unexpectedly to make this venture possible. I often thought of Psalm 104:24, “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all…” Another thread was Psalm 126:5, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy,”  because the first seeds of IOCS came out of personal crisis, and—as Fr Michael Fortounatto told me at the time—that’s where God is found.

First some background. I had been a priest for ten years, and in the summer of 1994 my wife Denise and I moved from Rahway, New Jersey to Thessaloniki, Greece with our three sons (Andrew, Alex, and Anthony) so I could start doctoral studies in New Testament with Professor Petros Vassiliadis. The assumption had been that after finishing my PhD I would return to teach at St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York. I spent a year in Greece, and then moved to Cambridge, England to do research at Tyndale House, a wonderful biblical research library, where I could work under the supervision of its director, Dr Bruce Winter. He was acquainted with the biblical faculty in Thessaloniki through Professor John Karavidopoulos who had spent a sabbatical year at Tyndale House. It was an extraordinary time in our lives, and I made the most of the resources in Cambridge, including attending the lectures of Professor Morna Hooker on the letters of St Paul.

Then in September 1996—sooner than expected, and before I had finished my dissertation—Fr Thomas Hopko (the dean at that the time) invited me to apply for a position at StVladimir’s and to come for faculty interviews, give a lecture, participate in the liturgical services, and preach. It all seemed to go well, and I returned to Cambridge with great anticipation. However, on November 7th, I had a mournful but decisive call from Fr Tom: he couldn’t offer me a position. Clearly, it hadn’t gone as well as we both had thought at the time. I was devastated and honestly didn’t know what to do. In November 1996, living in Cambridge, everything seemed to have fallen apart. And that’s where the Institute begins.