“Been a Long Time Gone…”: Reflections on Constantinople

There is a swing-style song, written by Jimmy Kennedy and Irving Berlin in 1929, and popularized by “the Four Lads” in 1953 named “Istanbul Not Constantinople”. It begins:

“Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night.

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul!”

It’s a silly song (like Mairzy Dotes, of similar vintage), and was meant to be. But to those for those who can discern the prophetic voice of God in unlikely sources, it might just have something to say us who Orthodox in the 21st century.

If it’s true that Istanbul wasn’t always Istanbul, but used to be called Constantinople, it is equally true that Constantinople wasn’t always Constantinople. Prior to the Emperor Constantine choosing the site for his own new capital (i.e. “Constantine City”) it was the smaller town of Byzantium, and its bishop was Metrophanes, who ruled his small flock there until 314, subject to his metropolitan, the bishop of Heraclea. Under Constantine, the town of Byzantium had a new, unforeseen and glorious future as Constantinople, or New Rome. But until then Metrophanes and his episcopal predecessors styled themselves “bishop of Byzantium”. The new situation brought him a new name.

Orthodoxy has always been remarkably flexible and adaptable. The theology books call this “the principle of accommodation”, and they show how the Church changed with the changing times, accommodating itself to new situations. That is why the secular civil boundaries became ecclesiastical boundaries as well—so much so that when the State divided a previously united area of Caesarea into Caesarea Prima and Caesarea Secunda (even though it severely limited the bishop of Caesarea’s previous jurisdiction and clout), the Church went along, and divided his diocese to coincide with the new secular reality. The Church was not giving in to “Caesaropapism” (that western bogey-man), but following its calling to live in the real world.

That is important, and not just because refusal to live in the real world often lands you into an asylum, but also because we cannot convert the real world unless we live in it. For it is in the real world—the world found on the six o’clock news and read about in the newspapers—that people are saved or damned, sanctified or degraded, lost or won to Christ. It is in that world only that hungry people are fed, that sinners heed the Gospel and return to the living God. And these people, who know and care only for the world they experience, will listen to us only if we seem to also live in their world. People who seem to them to live in a fantasy world (such as conspiracy theorists, holocaust-deniers, and people carrying signs proclaiming THE END IS AT HAND) will not get much of a hearing.

I would suggest that part of our calling to live in this real world means coming to terms with the difficult bits of it. Calling our primatial city “Constantinople” has the advantage of stressing its post-Constantinian continuity, to say nothing of its canonical privileges, and that has value. But by doing so we betray our apostolic flexibility, by which we turned Byzantium into Constantinople in the first place. If a new situation transformed small-town Byzantium into glorious Constantinople, should not the newer situation (well, not that new—the city fell in 1453) of transforming Christian Constantinople into Turkish Istanbul be accepted too? What does our insistence on refusing to acknowledge the city’s current name and status win us? Its canonical privileges do not stand or fall with a name change, nor our love for the see’s occupant.

Imagine the credibility we might gain in the world’s eyes if we abandoned our concern for Imperial pomp and long-departed glory and were content to be clad in the only real glory we ever actually had—the glory of the Cross. All of this humility and true glory could be bound up with acceptance of what God has wrought and allowed in the real world, the arena of redemption—even something as difficult as accepting that Constantinople has fallen. We might yet commemorate our beloved primate and martyric brother in new and ringing words: His All-holiness, Patriarch of Istanbul.