Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, one of the foremost aristocratic gentleman academics of the early twentieth century, delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews in 1960 and 1961. Runciman used his extensive wealth and contact to spend time within archives across Europe, and his gift for languages ensured he brought a wealth of material into English across his long career. The book here is a split volume collecting the Gifford Lectures he delivered as well as the 1966 Birkbeck Lectures he delivered at Cambridge in 1966. The opening section deals with the ‘Great Church’ (as its loyal adherents call it) before the Turkish conquest – an area of history, that, as Runicman acknowledges, is already well-tilled ground. The following section covers the history of the Greek church under occupation, and even for those readers more familiar with the earlier history, the second section sheds much-needed light upon an area of theological history that is often ignored and remains little examined.
The opening section gives an exhaustive introduction to Byzantine church and Empire. Covering the relationship between the Church and individual churches, the historical development of the relationship between church and state (including the increasingly political instability and fragility of the Empire, before finishing with a fascinating look at the theology of mysticism the church developed. All of this leads up to May 1453, where the last heir of Constantine the Great dies on the battlefield and the Sultan enters the city of Constantinople. From this point, under occupation, the Church faces a huge variety of challenges. Despite clear sympathies with the Byzantine church and Empire, Runciman never falls into theological reductionism as his archival work and nuanced understanding uncovers the extent to which political complexity rather than theological aggression began to take a toll on the Church, losing it’s educated laity and most of its active theologians. Runciman documents the ways in which Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic churches engaged and struggled with the Orthodox church across three centuries, before the botched rebellion in 1821 in which twelve bishops and the Patriarch were hanged. From that point on, the Church was deprived of its political and ecclesial powers, which in many ways it has not regained. In closing, Runciman’s magisterial survey proves the triumph of the church was in its endurance through centuries of occupation where it remained marginalised and often ignored – even today there are few outside of the church aware of its long history under occupation. Runciman’s work, in bringing attention to this marginalised story of faithfulness, is hugely deserving of our attention and serves as a landmark work in the history of the Orthodox church.