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Rites of Power

What’s behind Prince Charles’s infatuation with Eastern Orthodoxy?

From an American perspective, the pomp and circumstance of British royal weddings is confounding. So when newspapers throughout the world began hailing the recent nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as groundbreaking, it was actually a relief. Reuters hailed the event as “a ceremony that combined modernity and the ancient rituals of a royal house that dates back to 1066,” while also pausing to note that it “was like no other the royal family has seen before.” From the “radical” sermon by the Episcopal Church’s Bishop Michael Curry to the gospel choir singing “Stand By Me,” the ordeal did away with a few—but, of course, not all—of the trappings of stuffy British royalism. Of lesser notice to most of the commentariat, however, was the presence of the Coptic Orthodox archbishop of London, Anba Angaelos, who led a prayer during the proceedings.

While the New York Times insisted that the service was “carefully put together by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry,” Angaelos’s presence seems more in line with the spirituality of Harry’s father, Prince Charles of Wales—a long-time admirer of the Eastern churches writ large. Charles’s occasional “clandestine” jaunts to Mount Athos—the hub of Eastern Orthodox spirituality—have long been a point of fascination for both the British and Greek press. Schlepping off to “Holy Mountain”—a.k.a., Mount Athos, the Greece-based center of Orthodox monasticism, may be a habit of “Europe’s wealthy blue bloods,” who—as the Guardian observed—see “the luxuriant territory” as the “perfect ‘detox’ getaway.” But Charles’s devotion to Orthodox tradition stands out in this spiritual-tourist company. Several commentators within the faith have gone so far as to describe him as “Orthodox in his heart”—and a few very stout defenders of Orthodoxy have whispered that the doddering sovereign could even be a full-fledged convert.  

It’s far likelier, though, that Charles cleaves to the trappings of the Eastern Orthodox tradition—particularly its Greek iteration—simply because it is a tradition. One didactic anecdote that has appeared in a number of Russian publications, and has even become a sort of inspirational quote, recalls the prince saying to an audience in a “closed English club” that: “[W]e are all running into an abyss of depravity, debauchery, looting, thievery, complete immorality, to full corruption. The sole place, which I see, where maybe such a revival could begin is Russia.” Never mind that the report is of questionable veracity at best; even years after Charles compared Putin’s activities in Crimea to Hitler’s irredentism, nationalist publications like Zavtra (Tomorrow) have brandished Charles’s alleged praise of Russia as a virtual campaign endorsement.

Given that he’s presently next in line to lead the Church of England as its supreme governor, Charles’s religious proclivities may seem eclectic, even confusing. Yet in an age marked by the global conservative elite infatuation with the idea of employing “traditionalist” and small-o “orthodox” Christianity as a bludgeon against modernism, Charles’s religious thought and activism deserve more serious consideration. A deep interest in the Orthodox spirituality of his forefathers is one thing—indeed, it’s an unstated obligation for any blue-blooded royal. But Charles’s romance with the Orthodox tradition carries with it more than a whiff of ideological morale-boosting, as this heir to a decrepit, socially useless monarchy ponders his own family’s eventual descent into political and moral irrelevance.

His spiritual odyssey has alternated bizarre, over-the-top displays of grandiose wealth—like, say, his son’s recent wedding—with carefully managed excursions to sites of spiritual cleansing.

For Western reactionaries of the post-Vatican II era, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, along with more “traditionalist” strains of belief, have served as soothing balm for the ultra-conservative mind. Adherents have seized the tri-bar cross while attempting to carry out William F. Buckley’s maxim that one ought “to stand athwart history, yelling ‘stop.’” The American Conservative’s tiresome Orthodox reactionary-in-residence Rod Dreher wrote in 2012 that the apparent “procedural stasis” of the Orthodox Church is a “blessing.”

Still, it must be averred that, unlike such ardent fellow Orthodox travelers, Charles comes by his spiritual interests in the traditional way—via his family history. Charles’s paternal grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, founded an order of nuns that came to be known as the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary. Alice’s aunt, the late Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia, was also inspired by the monastic life, having founded the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in 1909—four years after the death of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov. Though Elizabeth was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, hagiographical accounts of her death frame her as a martyr for Russian Orthodoxy. One such account, ostensibly from one of her assassins, tells of her singing prayers to God after being brutalized and thrown down a mine shaft. She was canonized in 1992, one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Like both Alice and Elizabeth, the prince has made use of the copious leisure at his disposal to explore the austere rigors of the monastic life, at least intermittently. While this fascination likely never did (or shall) produce the secret conversion that causes so much wistful sighing in Orthodox centers of power from Russia to Greece, there’s no denying that Charles has long carried the torch for Orthodoxy. In addition to his numerous visits to Holy Mountain, Charles has served as the royal patron for the philanthropic venture since 2012, Friends of Mount Athos, which is headed by none other than one of England’s foremost Orthodox theologians, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia. Charles’s father, Prince Philip, is an honorary member of the foundation as well.

Charles’s patronage of, and admiration for, the Orthodox cause fits into a broader trend of looking “East” for an alternative—perhaps even for a counter—to the alienation and despair of Western secularism. And the traditionalist Temenos Academy is the perfect vessel of this restorative faith for Western seekers of a certain Spenglerian outlook.

The academy has its roots in a journal, Temenos—a Greek word denoting “the sacred center”—which was launched in 1980 by Keith Critchlow, Brian Keeble, Philip Sherrard, and the English poet Kathleen Raine, and later succeeded by the Temenos Academy Review. Ten years later, Temenos expanded, launching an academy of the same name that was dedicated to spreading its “perennial philosophy,” as well as combating the plague of “secular materialism” in the modern world.

In Charles, Raine in particular found a like-minded spirit. In 1992, two years after the academy’s launch, the Observer reported that Raine had come to see the prince as “one of us.” Charles had just laid out his “religious vision of an ‘era of building design, more at one with the natural world and the creative force we call God’” during the launch of his Institute for Architecture—a vision that, as the paper noted, wasn’t that far off from the Temenos Academy’s own. Alert to such affinities, Raine sought out the prince’s patronage—an appeal that was no doubt helped by the prince’s close friendship with a Raine associate, Sir Laurens van der Post, a modern-day mystic who died in 1996 and was either a long-time friend of Carl Jung or a tremendously effective fraud.

Raine—whose poetry was inspired by the mystical work of William Blake—drew heavily on the Platonist and neo-Platonist traditions in her scholarly work, but both Temenos and its host academy followed a more eclectic spiritual path. (Sherrard, for instance, was a prominent Eastern Orthodox writer, and religious figures such as Rowan Williams and the Dalai Lama have graced the pages of Temenos, and later the Temenos Academy Review.) Though Charles may be “more of an anti-modernist,” as Mark Sedgwick observed in his 2004 book Against the Modern World, the Temenos Academy melded an ostensibly anti-modernist ethos with a traditionalist one.

It’s worth noting, on this side of the pond, that the Temenos project is rooted, in part, in the thought of a figure who ought to be well known to the devoted chroniclers of the intellectual odyssey of Steve Bannon and the alt-right—the French reactionary thinker René Guénon. Often described as the founder of the “perennialist” or “traditionalist” school of thought, Guénon saw in the totality of human religious practice a sort of “primordial” character connecting disparate theological trends to one another. “When one finds such agreement everywhere,” Guénon asked, “is this not more than a simple indication of a Primordial Tradition?” Guénon’s work serves as a quasi-“theological” rationale for conservatively minded  elites (and their burgeoning corps of fellow travelers in the xenophobic Western right) seeking to harness their diffuse dissatisfaction with the modern age to a revanchist blood-and-soil political faith.

The Temenos brand of this faith, at any rate, is steeped in the rhetoric of the great antimodern Kulturkampf. Raine warns that “no renaissance has ever yet come of iconoclasm and rejection of the past.” And, in a happy bit of intellectual synergy with her various funding overtures, she’s an ardent champion of monarchism: “I find myself a supporter of monarchy as the best safeguard of human values. Just because the foundation of monarchy is not political, it safeguards those human freedoms and values which are the marks of true civilization” she wrote in a Temenos-published collection. Her ardor for the Orthodox is likewise an affirmation of the enfeebled state of the West as much as it’s a serene reckoning with higher spiritual truths: “[t]he materially poor East lacks what we in the West can provide . . . while our spiritually destitute materialist civilization looks to the Orient.”

Charles, likewise has written of the benefits of a world culture that returns to tradition: “Can we not learn, therefore, that so much discarded and derided tradition is not the enemy of modernity, but is its inevitable future precisely because of the balance that needs to be struck?” he asked in a 2006 essay. Our secular age, Charles noted in a 2000 address before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, is at risk of “ignoring, or forgetting, all knowledge of the sacred and spiritual,”—which is to say elite-administered tradition. For Charles, it may well be a feature, not a bug, that this high Burkean vision of spiritual order, as Tristam Hunt noted in the Prospect, can often “function as one of the great veils of injustice.”

Sadder and wiser, Charles turns to find his spiritual vocation amid the hierarchies of a mythologized holy order.

It’s fair to say, in any event, that Charles and his family make for an unlikely vessel in propagating this austere gospel of social deference. His spiritual odyssey has alternated bizarre, over-the-top displays of grandiose wealth—like, say, his son’s recent wedding—with carefully managed excursions to sites of spiritual cleansing. It is, in other words, a sort of materialist schizophrenia. And in Charles’s case, it’s made all the more acute by the lavish, yet pointedly ornamental, role he’s been assigned in the drama of the British state. As in so many other spheres of life, it’s likely a mixed blessing that a royal seeker always has the means, money and time at his disposal to conduct pilgrimages and otherwise pursue his own spiritual betterment—after all, it’s another symptom of creeping modern malaise that spiritual elevation is a commodity that appeals chiefly to the wealthy few.

Charles may have turned down membership in esoteric societies more commonly associated with English royalty, such as the Freemasons (who in any event have made a singularly lackluster job of their earlier mission to rally to the monarchy’s spiritual and worldly preservation)—but the Eastern Orthodox-influenced strand of antimodernist belief clearly does offer him considerable succor in these corrosive modern times.  More than that, though, the prince’s Orthodox cultus likely rouses him anew to the awesome legacy that makes the English monarchy possible. The sacred belongs to our individual inner realms; the monarch, who Prince Charles envisions as not the “Defender of the Faith” (the Church of England) but the “Defender of Faith,” is the natural protector of traditionalism.

The monarchy’s memory is long and its resources all but endless. It’s true enough that the overblown spectacle of Harry’s royal banns—an integrated, multi-faith wedding with an African American bride—has given a fleeting sheen of timeliness to the British royals. But Charles knows better than to fall for such ephemera. After all, he also had a taboo-breaking royal wedding of his own back in the day—one that culminated in the media martyrdom of Diana Spencer. Sadder and wiser, Charles turns to find his spiritual vocation amid the hierarchies of a mythologized holy order. But what’s unnerving now is that a fast-growing reactionary movement in the West has found common cause with his crusade. Though these counterrevolutionaries may not find themselves consistently in agreement, together they ponder the same icons, and observe the same formalities of deference, as their pilgrim vessels beat ceaselessly into the past.