It is common to hear of ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Orthodox. Unfortunately, this now is usually a one-sided conversation, with certain Anglicans trying mightily to show their Eastern credentials. Some even cite the Anglican Reformers’ dialogue with the Orthodox and use of the church fathers as evidence for the specious claim that the Anglicans were not “Protestant.” When we look back to the landscape of the early 17th century, however, we see a very different picture.
The Anglican Reformers certainly did cite the church fathers, but this was hardly a move unknown to the wider Reformation. Indeed, Luther and Calvin had themselves laid claim to the church prior to papal supremacy, and lengthy treatises were put out by Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi (to name just two) on the patristic doctrines of Christology and the sacraments. In fact, when Anglicans like Ridley or Jewel cited the early church, it was always to prove Protestant- and even Reformed- theological distinctives. There was little desire on the part of early English Reformers to identify themselves with “Eastern Orthodoxy” as we now know it because those Reformers did not grant that the early church fathers properly belonged to such a classification. They viewed all of the sound doctors of the church as catholic- that is universal- and as such, they viewed them as their fathers, with the Protestant Reformation being a true outgrowth of the earlier deposit of faith.
A still more interesting angle to this topic is the political one. King James and his churchmen did indeed correspond with the Patriarch of Constantinople, and there was impressive correspondence between the two groups. However, the patriarch of the day was none other than Cyril Lukaris. Lukaris’s theology was basically evangelical, and he is typically disliked by Eastern Orthodox churchmen today (though the realities of the 16th and 17th century were very different). Lukaris looked to King James as an ally against the Jesuits, who were the other international power of the day. James’ antipathy towards them was famous, and Cyril hoped that an alliance with England could strengthen the precarious situation of the Greek church at the time.
Cyril struck up conversation with King James through Archbishop George Abbot, a man known for his Calvinism. Lukaris sent two well-known students to Oxford, which was then considered one of the finest schools in the world. These students were Metrophanes Kritopoulos and Nathaniel Konopios. Kritopoulos would go on to teach Greek in Vienna and later become the archbishop of Alexandria. In an attempt to encourage more of these opportunities, and to spread the influence of the English crown abroad, James and Abbot established a scholarship program where they agreed to pay the expenses of students coming to England from Greece.
William Patterson describes the background to all of this as follows:
In about 1615, Cyril Lukaris, the Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria, then on official business in Constantinople, wrote a long letter in Greek to Archbishop Abbot. The letter was in reply to one from Abbot, sent with the encouragement of King James I, whose interest in the Greek Church Lukaris found deeply encouraging. Lukaris had evidently initiated the correspondence by asking if the English Church could assist in educating members of the Greek clergy. Lukaris began his letter to Abbot by excusing himself for not answering sooner. He had been called away to give aid to the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans and Poland who were threatened with an “anti-Christian tyranny” as a result of the “art and cunning of the Jesuits”- a reference to the vigorous effort being made in the those areas to bring the Orthodox within the jurisdiction of the papacy. Under the agency of the Jesuits this same effort was being made in the city of Constantinople itself. Lukaris noted that the two religions existed in single households and that conflict and argument were endemic among eastern Christians. Under the circumstances Lukaris found the communication from England, containing an offer of help, to be heartening, and he expatiated upon the qualities of that monarch whose loving concern had been so expressed. King James’s classical wisdom and charitable heart had made him unique among the then reigning monarchs- “a philosopher-king in every respect.” James’s Christian qualities were no less evident than his generosity, and these attributes had carried his reputation to the East and across the world. Finally Lukaris turned to the invitation which had elicited such an outpouring of gratitude. Soon, he said, he would depart for Alexandria, and “from there I will gladly send to your piety men whom I select and judge to be pleasing to Christ as skilled in the service of the Gospel.”
W. B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 201-202
Patterson goes on to quote Lukaris as claiming that the Reformed faith was “the pure and clear word of God.” Patterson explains, “[Cyril] now recognized that reformed theology was the closest to ‘the doctrine of Christ’” (202).
As for Metrophanes Kritopoulos, after completing his schooling at Oxford, he toured Europe to study the Protestant churches there. Patterson states that Kritopoulos:
…spent eight months at Helmstedt in Germany as a guest in the home of Georg Calixtus, the irenic Lutheran theologian. He also visited Wittenberg and spent almost a year at Nuremberg and the nearby University of Altdorf… At Berne and Geneva, he declared his hope to further the prospects of a union between the Reformed and Orthodox churches (213).
It seems that Kritopoulos was himself an irenic theologian.
Due to England’s own political turmoil, the scholarship plan of Abbot and James did not last. One of their greatest achievements in the ecumenical exchange, however, did. Archibishop Cyril sent the Codex Alexandrinus to England as a present in recognition of James’ support of the Greeks, and of Lukaris in particular. It arrived in England in 1627 and continues to be an essential tool of textual scholarship today.
Narratives such as this are mostly forgotten today. Cyril Lukaris, it is typically pointed out, was later denounced by his own church, and his theology and international vision is thus seen to be out of accords with the larger Orthodox one. We might respond that he was in good standing at the time of his interaction with England, that the occasion of his condemnation is complex, and that Orthodoxy today lacks a singular magisterium to maintain such clear-cut boundaries. Still, the better response is to simply say that life, even church life, is more than just ideas and ideals. Relationships born out of necessity and expediency are commonplace and are often the most practically influential upon historical development.
It should also be pointed out that some of the East’s later churchmen, like the great Feofan Prokopovich and Tikhon Zadonsky, were profoundly influenced by the Reformation. With a free civic sphere, there is no necessary reason why similar ecumenical engagements, even on Protestant terms, could not occur again. But they would certainly need a Reformed Irenicism in order to begin.