Father Ian Graham
The Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity
and the Annunciation, Oxford

THE spiritual leader of more than 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world will be visiting a small church in Oxford this week.
His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, will visit to speak to the Oxford Union, but before that he will be presiding at a special service in his honour at the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation on Canterbury Road.
The Patriarch is considered to be the “first bishop among equals” by Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Bartholomew’s predecessors have played this role since the 11th century, when the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches split from each other. 
In those days what are now the countries of Greece and Turkey, together with the states in the Balkans, were part of the predominantly Christian Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Missionaries were sent out from there to preach in eastern Europe and in Asia, and Orthodox Christianity spread from the heartland of the Empire to many other peoples. 
Those days are long gone – Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 – but the Patriarch of Constantinople has continued to be respected by all Orthodox Christians as their senior bishop, as a unifying figure and as a spokesman for this venerable branch of Christianity.

For a long time, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was hardly known in Britain but this changed in the 20th century, as travel abroad to places like Greece and Cyprus became easier and people from eastern Europe began to settle here.

Many Greek Cypriots, for example, came to help with the economic recovery after the Second World War and ended up settling down in Britain where their children, and now grandchildren, have grown up. In Oxford, the Orthodox Christian community has been a fixture on the religious scene since the 1940s, when Fr Nicholas Gibbes – who had been English tutor to the children of the last Tsar of Russia, and was later ordained as an Orthodox priest – established a chapel in his house in Marston Street. The Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation on Canterbury Road, which was established to serve Orthodox Christians of all backgrounds, celebrated the 40th anniversary of its consecration a couple of years ago.

One of the best-known and best-loved figures of world Orthodoxy, Bishop Kallistos (Ware), served as priest in charge of the Greek Orthodox Community between 1966 and 2001, while he was also a lecturer in Eastern Orthodox theology at Oxford University.

Patriarch Bartholomew was elected in 1991 and has become well known for his work for church unity (he has had cordial relations with the last three Popes, and with many other church leaders).

But he is probably best known and celebrated for his concern for the protection of the environment.

He has strongly promoted the initiative of his predecessor, Patriarch Dimitrios I, that the 1st of September each year should be a day of special prayer for the welfare of all creation, and he has been followed in this by many Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, who this year also recommended observance of that day. He has also convened and hosted gatherings of scientists and theologians throughout the world to discuss practical ways in which our environment can be healed and preserved. So strongly has he insisted on the importance of this that he has become known to some as the “Green Patriarch”.

Bartholomew is in England at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who paid him a visit in Istanbul last year. He comes to Oxford on Wednesday, November 4.

This will be the first time any Ecumenical Patriarch has made a formal visit to the church in Oxford. Bishops and church leaders from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Protestant communions will be joining members of the two parishes under his jurisdiction and many other Christians for a unique service of thanksgiving at the church in Canterbury Road at 6pm.