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IBTS Celebrates 75 Years!

IBTS Director, Mike Pears, shared the following reflection at the opening of the 2024 Research Colloquium

Play Mike Pears Reflection

In 2024 we are celebrating 75 years of IBTS and 10 years of partnership with the Vrije Universiteit Faculty of Religion and Theology!  As I look back on our 75 years and think about the way ahead, I have been reflecting about IBTS in terms of place and space — and the kind of space that has been formed as we have journeyed together over the decades. 

One person who has helped my own thinking about space is sociologist Doreen Massey. She was a significant thinker in the theory of place and presented the idea that ‘space is the convergence of stories so far’. A key point for her was that space is not fixed but should be understood as provisional. Furthermore, attempts to make spaces more fixed, more solid, is really an attempt to consolidate certain kinds of power relationships — an attempt to maintain the dominance of privileged groups. 

For me, Massey’s ideas have a kind of baptist-theological feel about them. Indeed, when I was doing my PhD she invited me to visit her in London and we shared a meal together one evening at her favoured restaurant in Tottenham high street to discuss my ideas of redemptive spaces. And over the years, I have found it helpful and inspiring to think of the IBTS space in Massey’s terms as ‘the convergence of stories so far’. 

I suggest that as we celebrate 75 years, we are not simply celebrating the continued existence of an institution, but we celebrate a remarkable diversity of stories and testimonies that have converged from almost every corner of the world. The convergence of stories means that each person coming to IBTS brings their own story: the story of their family, their Baptist or faith community in their own country. They have come from situations of hope and healing and reconciliation and flourishing mission. They have also come from situations of war, of persecution and opposition, of grief and loss and pain. And in bringing their lives and stories they have shaped and developed the IBTS space. And this multi-storied space has in turn become a witness to Christ in the world. 

As we come together at the beginning of our 75th year, we find again that we are participating in an experience of convergence as we bring our stories and experiences from an astonishing diversity of situations. And in doing so, we too contribute to the ongoing shaping of the IBTS space. Whether people are here for the first time at a colloquium or whether they are an IBTS old-timer, we all participate together to shape what we pray is a space of powerful witness and embodied hope for the world in which we live. 

This idea helps, I think, to better understand how this is a theological space — in particular a baptist-theological space. Let me suggest a few ideas. 

First of all, drawing on Massey’s definition, it is a provisional space — or perhaps we could say an open space. In this sense I like the words ‘so far’ (in Massey’s phrase the convergence of stories so far) because they indicate that who we are and what we know is not all there is — it is not absolute or ultimate – that in fact there is much that we do not see. This ‘so far’ seeks intentionally to resist the dominance of some hierarchy of fixed social arrangement. 

Of course, we only need to recollect some of the memories of IBTS life or even simply look around the room in the colloquium to notice that the IBTS space has not in fact been an entirely open space nor has it been one that is free from dominating social hierarchy. After 75 years we should notice, and be moved by, the lack of women in the room; and the very few people of colour in the room; and the absence of those from socially and economically marginalised situations. This is, for me, a matter of grief and shame. 

Though we grieve these distortions, we also have hope, because this is a provisional space. It can be changed and shaped as new stories converge with the old. We are profoundly grateful for the women in the room and for the stories and witness that you bring to us through your presence in the community and through your research. Similarly, we value and respect the presence of people of colour in the room — for the way that you challenge long-standing assumptions about the way theology is done and the prejudices that have been held for so long in the church and the academy. 

With these things in mind, we are seeking practically to arrange the IBTS space so that it really is open — and welcomes the convergence of stories. To put it another way, we could say that IBTS seeks to be a place which intentionally fosters the convergence of stories and is therefore open to be continually changed. This applies not only to this room in the colloquium but also in everything we do — whether in the Learning Network or in our staff meetings. 

For example, in the midst of our academic pursuit we seek to foster a place where we can truly encounter each other as people, not just as academics. We seek to practise respect for each other with a particular emphasis on being open to learn from, and be changed by, those we encounter from different cultures and social situations. 

To facilitate this, we arrange our learning spaces, including the colloquium and Learning Network, around conversation where everyone is encouraged to listen deeply to each other, to respect, and to share. We pray, and worship, and eat, and celebrate — and all of these practices are essential ways of encouraging a deeper convergence of ourselves and our stories so that the IBTS space can grow in Christ-likeness and witness in the world.  

As we gather at the beginning of our 75th anniversary year, it is with the conviction that this kind of space that we experience in the colloquium, which is characterised by the convergence of stories, is important for today’s world which is increasingly characterised by divergence, hostility, and division. So, whilst we celebrate, let us pray and continue to work so that this hopeful gathering that we call IBTS might continue to flourish for years to come and that it might grow as a powerful witness not only in the ways we have discussed but in ways that we have not yet understood.