Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I’s Visit To Oxford; And Early-Modern Personal Monarchy

What is the connection between the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch to Oxford and early-modern personal monarchy? I’ll leave you to until the end of this post to muse!

The Ecumenical Patriarch is currently visiting Britain, at the invitation of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The Ecumenical Patriarch Constantinople is ‘first among equals’ (first in honour) among Orthodox Patriarchs. He does not have the power of the Pope in Roman Catholicism, since Orthodoxy has a decentralized and conciliar tradition of Church government, but the Ecumenical Patriarch is looked to by us Orthodox Christians as the spiritual leader of our Church. Therefore, a chance to attend a service given by the Patriarch and receive his blessing was an exciting, probably once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity!

My church in Oxford was absolutely packed! I’d guess there were about 200 people there, including not only Orthodox faithful but also a number of Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops and many Orthodox priests and monastics. I arrived about 20 minutes early and watched the church just keep filling up, until it looked like if many more people arrived there would be no space left at all. It was hard to see over people’s heads during the service – I did think of Zacchaeus climbing a tree in his burning desire to see Our Lord; but, of course, there were no trees, or similar structures, available, so I just kept rising onto my tip-toes. The glimpses I caught of the Patriarch during the service revealed him to have a quiet, peaceful, intelligent face.

The service was a short doxology (a service of thanksgiving), mostly in English, followed by some speeches and prayers. The Patriarch gave a longer speech and prayer in Greek, followed by a shorter one in English. He spoke about a number of things, including warmly commending the work of Bishop Kallistos Ware in Oxford and abroad. Bishop Kallistos is one of the leading Orthodox theologians, and has been instrumental in both ecumenical dialogue and in conversions into the Orthodox Church in Britain and other English-speaking countries, through both his writings and his speeches. He is my local bishop and is an exceptionally good and funny preacher and speaker. I still grin when I remember some of his anecdotes, which have become things of legend. A huge number of his talks have found their way onto YouTube and I highly recommend them, e.g. The Ecumenical Patriarch also reminded us that a church is not simply a building but something in our hearts, and that we should engage with this mystery to the glory of God.

I was most touched that at the end of the service – although it was late, and the Patriarch has no doubt already had a busy day, is an elderly man, and was very soon to speak at the Oxford Union – he insisted on standing in the church for everyone present who wanted to come and receive an icon from him (and of course all Orthodox present also kissed his hand). So I now have an icon (of the Mother of God) from the Ecumenical Patriarch, and have kissed his hand! This caused me somewhat of a spiritual dilemma. As I was leaving the church I saw an elderly lady sitting down in the vestibule, telling another lady that she had limited mobility so she wasn’t able to go up and receive an icon, and the second lady offered the first lady her icon, but it was gratefully refused. I wondered if I should offer her my icon. I had been delighted to receive it, as I have been struggling with a very sinful and selfish attitude sometimes recently, especially when I’m tired and trying to fall asleep, so I hoped that holding this icon and praying while falling asleep would help me to overcome this persistent stumbling block. It was a split second decision, and I didn’t. I think now that I should have. I could have used another icon instead. I did pray and hope that the Ecumenical Patriarch or one of those accompanying him would stop to offer her an icon as they passed through the vestibule to the refreshments, and I suppose it’s possible that they did. But, in that split second, I think I made the wrong decision, and yet it wasn’t from consciously bad motives – it was from so wanting to get a grip on my struggle with sin – but I think I was wrong all the same. I feel like I make the wrong choices a lot. I hope and pray I get wiser and know more immediately what is the best thing to do. But, I certainly will try falling asleep holding my icon and praying, and I hope that will help me to have a more God-centered, pure and loving attitude at all times.

So, personal monarchy… Well, I also reflected, walking away from the church, that I now see exactly why personal monarchy mattered so much in the early-modern period. Before the service today, I had rather wondered about the point of the Patriarch travelling around so much. He is the leader of a tiny and persecuted flock (Greek Orthodox Christians have been reduced to just 2,000 in Turkey, after a century of relentless persecution and discrimination), and he faces constant harassment from the Turkish government. I thought perhaps he would do better to stay in Turkey more, and attempt to both inspire the Orthodox Christians there and convert others by an inspiring and closely pastoral ministry. But I realise now that by being visible and inspiring to Orthodox Christians and others across the world, he gives the Orthodox Church in Turkey and the ancient Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople perhaps the best possible chance of survival. It was moving and unforgettable to meet the man I hear prayed for in every Divine Liturgy, and to have received his blessing and to kissed his hand. I can now put a face, and voice, and personality, to a name. I now respect and thus have an emotional connection with the leader of my Church (I’m a Greek Orthodox Christian, so he is the direct leader of my Church). I’m more likely to devote prayers and money and time to attempting to ameliorate the straightened situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church in Turkey (somewhat ‘in Babylonish captivity’). This must have been the intended – often the achieved – impact of visible monarchy in the early-modern world: when it worked, it won a place of respect and love in people’s hearts for the monarch, and thus their greater loyalty. Hence, why the decline of visible monarchy in the early-modern Spanish Empire was a catalyst for the Dutch Revolt. Hence why Elizabeth I of England’s royal progresses largely kept the people loyal, even during years of crisis and suffering. Hence why, across Europe, the ordinary people clamoured for visible monarchy to remain even as it declined over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It’s funny how sometimes the present day gives more of a flash of insight into the past than any history book. I suppose it’s because, ultimately, early-modern people were people with human natures not unlike our own (pace post-modernism); yet, that’s all too easy to forget when we neglect to empathise with their lived reality in favour of focusing minutely on ‘constructs’ and ‘tropes’ and ‘rhetoric’ and ‘processes’.

[The Ecumenical Patriarch’s visit to Oxford is covered in more detail by an advance article in the Oxford Mail: I imagine that other reports will follow shortly, including of his speech to the Oxford Union this evening.]