Paul Thomas writes about when the Ecumenical Patriarch came to Evensong
His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira & Great Britain is a parishioner of St James’s, Sussex Gardens. He lives and works at Thyateira House on Craven Terrace, only a few minutes’ walk from the Parish Church. As his Parish Priest, therefore, I often call in there to extend fraternal greetings, enquire after everyone’s wellbeing, enjoy the delicious Greek hospitality, and to share with those who work there in the joy of various Holy Days. At Mass each day we pray for the Archbishop and his work. Strong and affectionate bonds exist between Anglicans and Orthodox in Paddington. Yes, they are based on good relationships, but it goes very much deeper, touching on the truths of the Faith. Happy personal connections have been enriched by lively, learned theological discussion and the self-evident sharing of so much common ground and life in Christ.
It is because of these close spiritual and personal bonds that the extraordinary and historic events of 23 October were made possible – the visit by His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Parish Church of Paddington for Solemn Evensong. It was an occasion of profound spiritual and ecumenical significance and potency.
The seed was first planted when, in conversation earlier in the year with Archbishop Nikitas and his Anglophile Chaplain, Fr Nephon Tsimalis, it was confirmed that His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch would indeed be visiting London in October to bless and honour the centenary celebrations of the Archdiocese. At that meeting I announced that the Parish Church would offer Solemn Evensong in honour of the centenary but also of the Patriarch’s presence among us. ‘It is the very least we can do,’ I informed the Archbishop, ‘for the Successor of St Andrew the First-Called!’ This deeply touched the Greeks that their Patriarch should be so honoured by the Parish Church. It was at a drinks party in the summer at Thyateira House that I asked the Archbishop whether His All-Holiness might even like to attend Evensong – not expecting for a moment that such a bold suggestion would have any real possibility of coming to pass. ‘I’ll ask him…’, the Archbishop replied. And he did! Fr Nephon ensured that Evensong was added to the Patriarchal Schedule before it was sent off to the Phanar. Several weeks passed by before I received a WhatsApp message from Fr Nephon confirming the happy news that the Ecumenical Patriarch would indeed be delighted to attend St James’s.
The liturgy itself was possessed of a unique spiritual power. The church was filled to capacity, and shortly before the liturgy began an almighty thunderstorm passed overhead spitting out flashes of forked lightning and thunderous peals. An occasion of great intensity was made more so by such other-worldly weather! The liturgy was offered with all the heft and dignity the Parish Church could muster. Bishop Jonathan (Fulham) presided from the Throne and Bishop Glyn Webster guided with great care and authority the Patriarchal Entourage, including no fewer than five Metropolitans, to their pews in the nave. I was later informed that the liturgy had left the Patriarchal party ‘totally bowled over’ by its solemn dignity, beauty, warmth, and deep prayer. ‘You have done a great service to the Orthodox and to the Church of England,’ I was told by an official ecumenical representative. To have had in our midst the leader of World Orthodoxy, to hear him speak for ten minutes at the end of Evensong, and to have received his Apostolic Benediction, gave this occasion an ecumenical and spiritual immensity that left everyone profoundly moved. No one who was there will ever forget it. May they all be one.