Off to see the…

by , under church

… Patriarch of Constantinople. Though he does look a bit like Dumbledore at times, especially when he twinkles his eyes at people. (But I think His All Holiness Bartholomew is a much better person than I think Dumbledore is.)

On Thursday we went to Utrecht where His All Holiness would be sitting on the bishop’s throne at Old Catholic Vespers. I like Old Catholic Vespers, in spite of the organ (too loud, and too equal-tempered as well, so to my ears always vexingly out of tune). But responsories! And the Extracurricular Choir School, consisting of seven girls and two boys from about eight to about eleven who didn’t only look very cute in their surplices but also sang absolutely in tune, very sweetly. Saint Gertrude’s Cathedral (I have to ask someone which Gertrude it is, I hope Gertrude of Nivelles who is the patron saint of cats, gardeners and travellers and protects against rats and mental illness) was full to the brim, half with assorted clergy and choir, half with people who had sent mail to the Old
Catholic office saying they’d like to be there. Tertia turned up without a reservation but was let in anyway when she said she was with her parents.

My other half was alert enough to move from somewhere in the middle of the row to an aisle seat so we could see the procession pass from close up. And a splendid procession it was, with at least four bishops counting the Patriarch, the children’s choir, the adult choir, lots of other people in various clerical dress, a couple of people in incongruous mufti, a woman carrying the cross in front of the Old Catholic archbishop of Utrecht. I told Tertia that when I was about her age, I was that woman; in fact I was four or five years older than Tertia is now, it was the previous archbishop or even the one before that, and I was already becoming Orthodox. (It was great at the time, though, to dress in cassock and surplice and do something useful in a service. I hope that woman felt as honoured as I did.)

At the end, the archbishop of Utrecht held a completely unmemorable talk, and the archbishop of Constantinople a much longer and more memorable talk, about the unity of churches. I did feel like saying “you don’t have to hold your whole lecture!” like Fr T said “you don’t have to read the whole Bible!” to an overenthusiastic reader in the Easter night. We hadn’t realised that there was an hour and a half between Vespers and the lecture, so we took Tertia to the Chinese restaurant near the station. (The food deserves a post of its own.) Then we were so tired, and so stiff from the Old Catholic pews, that we decided to go home instead of sitting out the lecture which will undoubtedly be online sometime and getting home probably by the last train.

But I was impressed with the Patriarch already. A short man, about 5’4″ I think (I’m 5’5″) but not by any means a little man, very much there.

We also wanted to go to Matins and Liturgy in Rotterdam, starting at 9am which is impossible by public transport from Deventer on a Sunday morning, so we’d reserved a hotel — ridiculously cheap, and it wasn’t until I’d had an actual dream about it that I realised that this was probably because Saturday was the celebration of Kingsday (the king’s birthday is the 27th but it’s traditional to have it on the Saturday if it falls on Sunday) and nobody would
be wanting hotel rooms. Also, it caused day tickets not to be valid on Saturday, and museums and things to be closed, so our plan to make a museum trip out of it fell by the wayside. But we did go to to the zoo (also deserves
a post of its own). When we arrived at the hotel we immediately got upgraded to a “junior room” instead of the “standard room” we’d booked, three grades up according to the desk clerk. The bed was so wide that we lost one another during the night, because we’re both used to sleeping near the edge; we could have accommodated a third person between us.

Digression: I’d advise anyone who really wants to get to know a city to walk through it early on Sunday morning. We do that a lot because we usually want to go to at least some church, and try to be there in good time. The way from our hotel to the church was full of night clubs, just spilling out their all-night patrons. We crossed one street to avoid a fight that seemed to be imminent between two groups from different places.

So we were on our way well before eight because we wanted to be so early that we could get a place near the front before the church filled up. When we arrived, we saw a huge tent next to the church (I thought for the reception; little did I know). There were barrier fences, and the stairs down to the church had been fenced off with a chain, and several people in hi-vis jackets were milling about. Most of the fencing seemed to be against cars (no, fingers, not “cats”) and there was a walking route around it. One of the hi-vis people, in the church, said that we could light a candle but if we didn’t have an invitation we’d have to follow the service in the tent. I had
the presence of mind to say “Christos anesti” to an official-looking man in the doorway– at least we’d established ourselves as churchgoers, not tourists. I’d have loved to see the church, especially the huge icons of the Archangels on the ikonostasis, but I didn’t dare go any further than the narthex. I could see that each and every seat had a “Reserved” sign on it, and they were all still empty.

There was a projection screen in the tent saying “Connecting to Stick3888”. It kept saying that even when Matins had already started until I alerted H, who comes to our parish occasionally and was in with the organisation, and he went to ask. “You’ll have signal when the Patriarch comes,” he said, “and the Patriarch will come when the church is full. That’s patriarchal protocol, we’re expecting him by nine-thirty.” Apparently the church needed to be full of Important People, entitled to be late. While we were fuming about that, two small Greek women from Utrecht sympathised and we had a nice talk about “it’s the ordinary people like us who come here from God knows where to see the Patriarch! Not the important people, ambassadors and such, it’s only a formal thing for them.”

Suddenly the image did come on, though, and we could see that it was indeed Matins and the church was still mostly empty. There were dozens of people standing outside by now, most of them looking very Greek. I knew some of the clergy by sight, notably Fr Georgios from Utrecht who grinned at me from the altar when I went to light a candle, but there was nobody of “us” apart from H and the formerly-Serbian soon-to-be-Constantinople Hypodiakon R who arrived on a bicycle (and managed to get into the church and stand against the back wall for all of the service; we saw him on the video. I wish I’d been so bold.) Aren’t we of Constantinople too? It’s not as if it wasn’t announced in our parish. I suppose all the Dutch people –apart from us– focus more on the intellectual and go to the lecture, or something like that. My other half said later that we ought to have gone as representatives of our exarchate and we’d have had a reserved seat in the church!

A sleek grey Mercedes arrived, and we thought it the kind of car to transport patriarchs in, but it contained only underlings. Hi-vis people made frantic phone calls. A real security squad turned up, a Greek security firm based in Rotterdam, I didn’t know that existed: four men who couldn’t have been anything but bodyguards, especially the foreman, tall, straight and with buzz-cut hair, who investigated everything including the wobbly board at the tent entrance. The projector failed, picked up, failed again. Matins continued. A whole coach full of French-speaking Greek-looking people arrived, possibly from Brussels because they had the priest with them who I remembered from when we went to church there, the one with the splendid reading voice. Nuns from Asten arrived, and more priests and monks, saying that His All Holiness was on his way. When I went to say “Christ is risen” to the nuns (I know two of the three; I spoke Greek to the third from confusion and got a Greek answer but I still don’t know who she was) I saw a black car arrive and people move forward expectantly. His All Holiness came out of the car, kissed two little boys inĀ Greek national dress on the forehead when they came to greet him, got dressed in his mantle (so long that it needed four men to carry it behind him) and was in the church just in time for the Matins Gospel reading. We could see him on the video, which worked for a change, sitting on the throne (does every Greek church have a bishop’s throne?).

It was very strange to watch a service on a video link that I knew was going on not thirty meters away. On the one hand it was like watching it on television as if it wasn’t really happening, on the other hand people, including me, did stand for some parts, and cross themselves, and sing the Easter troparion and pray the Lord’s Prayer (which I did in Dutch because I can’t do it in Greek beyond pater imon) and sit when the Patriarch made a “kathiste!” gesture. The church was full by this time, very full indeed, of assorted clergy and monastics and two women who looked like Protestant sisters (who had been asked in at some point, they were in the tent first) and smartly dressed bored-looking people and bodyguards and hi-vis people and photographers and Hypodiakon R and a whole crowd of what I think was the local parish. It would indeed have been cruel to banish them to the tent as well! In hindsight I’m glad I wasn’t in the church, because it wasn’t only broadcast but also recorded, and that would have made me too self-conscious if I’d been aware of it to really take part in the service. Which I could do in the tent, in spite of everything.

By that time I’d more or less given up on receiving Communion. No, to be honest I’d already given up when we weren’t let into the church, because I said to my other half “I think we ought to have had breakfast”. But when the Liturgy came to that point I saw a priest leaving the church with a chalice, and I was still thinking he was going to stand at the back to divide the crowd there a little when he entered the tent and started to distribute Holy Communion to all comers. Including us. I was completely bowled over.

Soon after that the video gave up again. We’d had some interruptions, two men and a woman coming in singly or in congress to fix it, but by now the parish priest was preaching and nothing was being done about the video so I said to my other half “if I can’t see anything I’d rather be outside!” and he agreed and came with me. We’d been promised that “everybody can see the Patriarch” and I’d have loved to kiss his hand and be blessed by him, but we were so daunted by the idea of having to stand there for an unknown amount of time not knowing when or even whether we’d be able to squeeze into the admittedly tiny church –smaller than our own church, much smaller than the Greek church in Utrecht– that we left during or just after the Patriarch’s sermon and went in search of something to eat.

We’d passed a Greek restaurant advertising mezedes on the way from the hotel and vaguely made our way there, but halfway thought that the chance that they’d be open for lunch on a Sunday would be slim, so we sat down at the first place where it looked as if we’d get something decent to eat. We had nice beer and bog-standard pub food and excellent coffee, exactly what we needed.

The world was strange: I felt like I was somewhere abroad. Perhaps it’s Rotterdam being so diverse, or the fact that almost everybody we’d been with had been Greek, or perhaps the strangeness of the whole thing.

Afterword: the next day His All Holiness celebrated at the monastery at Asten. (Pictures unfortunately gone.) I have a feeling that it was much more fun there than in Rotterdam, though I’m glad we went. Asten is completely unreachable without a car; we wouldn’t have got home without imposing on someone to get us to a station.