Tom Spencer's Blog

Maria, who died in November, was a radical Greek aristocrat. As a child during the war she was permanently marked by her experiences in German-occupied Greece. She opposed the Greek Junta passionately. She went to the extent of talking to the PLO in the shape of the “Jackal” about providing military training for young Greeks opposed to the Generals. Thankfully this proved unnecessary as the Junta collapsed after the invasion of Cyprus. During this period she worked closely with the Norwegians to precipitate the expulsion of the military regime from the Council of Europe. Indeed 1n 2012 the Norwegian Government seriously considered putting her forward for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nothing stopped Maria. She was the fundraiser and organising genius behind the Religion, Science & Environment Symposia which brought His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to global attention as the “Green Patriarch”. She raised money, haggled over ships, decided on speakers and drove impossible timetables on the Danube, the Amazon and in the Arctic. She doggedly defended the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, caught as it is between an increasingly un-secular Turkish government and the age-old Russian desire for Moscow to become the Third Rome. She did so not least because an ancestor of hers had opened the gates of Constantinople to the Ottoman armies in 1453. She was irascible, implacable and magnificent. She devoted far too much of her own inheritance to creating Symposia from 1995 to 2009 on the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Mississippi. When she died she was engaged in a project that would have reached out to people of all faiths. The final Symposium would have progressed down the Ganges from its source in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. This project was constantly interrupted while Maria sought to raise funds for orphans on the streets of Athens and conspired enthusiastically with those organising the violence in Syntagma Square. As the Indian proverb has it, “Tigers do not eat grass”. Her last days were darkened by the outrageous suggestion from a Greek prosecutor that the various Symposia had never taken place and were merely an exercise in tax avoidance.

Without Maria there would have been less chance for the Western Churches to share in the Orthodox doctrine of Co-Creation. There would have been less likelihood that the Orthodox condemnation of crimes against the environment as “sins” would have taken place or had such global impact. There can be no doubt that Maria would have welcomed the election of Pope Francis. The Symposia cumulatively moved the position of the Catholic Church on questions of the environment. This was most apparent during the Adriatic Symposium in 2002 when the MV Festos Palace carrying the Symposium participants docked at Ravenna. The Ecumenical Patriarch then celebrated the first full Orthodox Liturgy to be conducted in Italy since the Great Schism in 1054. The Basilica in which it was celebrated had been built by one of Maria’s ancestors! There are moves afoot to find a way of preserving the intellectual heritage of the Symposia and building on its work.

The suffering of the Greek people comes in many forms. Maria believed that they will triumph over adversity and so do I. At their best the Greeks have the ability to both think big and make things happen. Maria certainly did. She commanded the loyalty of journalists, scientists and theologians around the globe. Their memories of her can be found on She particularly valued her Turkish friends. Thankfully she died before the full popularity of a new Turkish blockbuster entitled “Conquest 1453” became apparent. Although we did not know it at the time, the last word from the Symposia was in the closing speech, delivered by Professor Minik Rosing, at the Mississippi Symposium held in New Orleans in 2009. Professor Rosing was born in Greenland and is Professor of Geology at the University of Copenhagen. He stressed the importance of merging religion and science. “We don’t act on rationality, what sets us in action is input that moves our spirit … Science describes the components of nature, Religion deals with the aspects of human nature”.

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