“Tales of Canterbury” an eyewitness reflection by Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashivili

What follows is a wonderful reflection on the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury three weeks ago. Please enjoy these “tales” not only for a very personalized view (the dressing room!!) of that momentous event but for the humor, insight and commitment to ecumenism of Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Republic of Georgia.

Guests in the procession Archbishop Songulashvili is third from left
Guests in the procession
Archbishop Songulashvili is third from left

Tales of Canterbury

“Good morning, Mr Cowan, I am afraid I desperately need your help,” I told my pharmacist at Boswells, Adil Cowan. If you do not know what ‘Boswells’, is let me explain that this is a very diverse shopping centre which happens to be right next to my flat on Cornmarket Street, Oxford, next to the Saxon Tower. I have been here, under its roof, since 2008. You have to take 42 steps up before you get to my flat. There are no human neighbours living at the same height on the entire street. My only neighbours have been a strong, monogamous couple of jackdaws living right across Cornmarket Street in the chimney of the KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). I was told by one of the Baptist scholars at Regent’s Park College, Larry Kreitzer, that in this building, some time ago, local Baptists used to worship. These birds, jackdaws, are absolutely fascinating. They are sort of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ relatives of Georgian black crows. They are silver-headed and blue-eyed birds, very committed to each other and their family values. I sit and look at them every morning when I am having my tea or a bowl of porridge.  Why am I telling  you this? Oh, yes. I was telling you about my conversation with my chemist, right on the ground floor of the building.

“How can I help you? “ asked Mr Cowan, as he looked at me patiently.

“I woke up this morning with a heavy cough and a running nose. I need your advice.” I had thought out what to say beforehand.

“I will give you something,” said Mr Cowan, “you will take it, stay at home for a couple of days, and you will be fine!”

“No, no, I cannot stay at home – I need to see your new Archbishop today. I cannot do it with a running nose and a thundering cough, can I?”, I explained to him rather anxiously.

“Why it is so urgent to see him today – are you being excommunicated?!” he asked with a cheeky smile on his face. I could not refrain from laughing out loud.

“See what a good joke does,” said Mr Cowan thoughtfully. “ You crack a joke and for  ten seconds all your worries are forgotten!”

“This is why paradise is going to be heavily populated by clowns and not by clergy,” I joked back to Mr Cowan.

After having thought for a while Mr Cowan disappeared from behind the counter and in a few minutes reappeared with his hands full of medicine.
“This should help you immediately with the cough, this should dry up your nose…” Mr. Cowan spelt out slowly.

Within an hour I was sitting in an Oxford Tube coach heading down to London to have a meeting at Lambeth Palace, the historic residence of Anglican Archbishops.  This was a rather unexpected visit to the Primate of the Church of England who had not even been enthroned in the Chair of St Augustine, a missionary bishop sent from Rome to establish the first Episcopal see in the British Isles in the fifth century. Augustine, who should not be mistaken for St. Augustine of Hippo, was sent by Gregory the Great, who was one of the most influential popes in the early history of Western Christianity. His reputation as a wise counsellor was admitted even in the East. In the course of my study I have come across evidence that even Georgian hierarchs sought his council about the theological issues of the time.

Canterbury has been a centre of spiritual life first in British Isles and then, some time after the Reformation, the centre of the Anglican and Episcopal Communion around the world. Justin, whom I was going to meet, is the 105th successor to St. Augustine. On my coach to London I kept shooting a disgusting spray into my nostrils to dry the running nose and thought about the meeting at the palace.

I had received the notification for the meeting at very short notice.

“Will you be able to confirm Wednesday, 6th March for the meeting with the Archbishop?”, asked Father Jonathan Goodall in his e-mail message.  I immediately agreed to see the archbishop before his enthronement in Canterbury.  I would not miss this opportunity for any reason. Even the running nose that morning would not stop me from going to Lambeth.

I had met Justin Welby many years ago at the International Centre of the Community of the Cross of Nails at Coventry Cathedral. He was a key figure for international relations in the Community. In 2006 our Cathedral in Tbilisi became a member of the Community and was presented with a cross of nails with a piece of stone from Coventry Cathedral in affirmation of the work our cathedral had done for reconciliation with displaced Muslims from Chechnya.  From my knowledge of him I could say that he will be a hard-working, decisive and efficient archbishop for the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, and other religious communities of our day.

“Do come to Lambeth Palace a little early,” advised Jonathan. So I arrived at the palace a little early.  Jonathan seemed to be extremely busy. He was answering a lot of telephone calls and at the same time was writing his e-mails.  His study was full of papers and books.  There were papers on his desk, on the chairs and even on the floor. The sight of the office made me rather comfortable because my study always looks like that. Messy.

“Sorry for the mess,” said Jonathan as he greeted at the door of his office.

“Do take a seat…let me finish this email to my son and I will be with you.”

“No worries, take your time,” I said. I sat in a rather large armchair and started looking at his books on the numerous shelves. I like looking at other people’s books. They usually tell you more an about individual’s personal interests and priorities.  I was not surprised at all to see on his bookshelves a lot of ecumenical literature, WCC publications and others.  Also I could not help noticing a lot of liturgical books. As I happily explored Jonathan’ s library the door opened and a tall, bald-headed man entered. That was David Porter, one of the first appointees of the new archbishop: the director for reconciliation.

You should know David. He is a very special character. He comes from Northern Ireland and brings with him a range of experience of peace advocacy and reconciliation from his context.

“It is a bit strange to see you here at Lambeth Palace,” said David with a big smile on his face.

“Archbishop Malkhaz is not a stranger at Lambeth,” Jonathan intervened.

“Yes, I know that, but to see a Baptist Archbishop here is rather unusual,” explained David. After a little talk somebody else entered the room. This person gave me a surprised look and I returned a surprised look back. Within a second I realized that it was the archbishop.

“Your Grace!” I exclaimed.

“My Lord!” he exclaimed back.

We exchanged fraternal greetings in the Eastern manner (three symbolic kisses: right, left, right).

“I will see you very soon in my study,” said the archbishop and left the room.

Some ten minutes later Jonathan took me to the archbishop’s study with a folio in his hand. When we got to the study the archbishop was not there. We settled in comfortable but modest chairs. Within a couple of minutes the archbishop appeared in the doorway carrying a tray of with a coffee jar, cups, saucers and biscuits. The archbishop poured coffee for me, for Jonathan and then for himself. I thought this was very impressive. It is hard to imagine to a hierarch in the East serving his formal guests this way. In the East we have lost the concept of servant leadership. Byzantine pomp is still very dominant in our part of the world.

“What are your plans now?”  he asked calmly.

“Well, I will stay until the enthronement and then I will leave permanently for Georgia.”

“Whose enthronement?” he asked without having the faintest sign of humour on his face.

“I think it’s your enthronement, your Grace!” I answered without being certain whether he was serious about his question or if he was just pulling my leg.

“Oh,” said the archbishop, “when is it?” he asked again without changing the expression of his face. Now I realized he was pulling my leg.

“Well, they say it’s on 21st March, this year,” I answered in a joking tone.

“Is it? I have another appointment that day and may not be able to attend,” said the archbishop, and now all three of us laughed.

We spent the rest of our time talking about Georgia, the Orthodox Church, and our church. I was surprised to see that he remembered the details of persecution we endured in Georgia – attacks and raids on our churches carried out by Orthodox extremists, the burning of Bibles in Tbilisi in 2002 – and also about the reconciliation we offered to the extremists when they were jailed after the Rose Revolution. We also spoke about the Church of England – Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia theological dialogue.

Our talks with the Church of England have been going on since 2008 when Dr. Paul Avis, Bishop Stephen Platen, Prof. Paul Fiddes and I met at Church House in London and agreed to start formal conversations between our churches. Since than we have had two more conversations; one in Tbilisi, Georgia and one in Mirfield, UK. (The encounters were attended by Bishop Stephen Platten and Revd. Paul Avis from the Church of England side, and Bishops Merab Gaprindashvili, Ilia Osepashvili, Rusudan Gotsiridze, Michael Cleaves, and the Revd. Irma Gegshidze from our side).

We have made considerable progress in these conversations.  Sometime, when the minutes of the conversation are published, everybody will see that the dialogue was constructive, profoundly theological and a pneumatological project for both parties.  It was decided that there was no hindrance to the Church of England and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia entering full eucharistic intercommunion without compromising their respective liturgical practices and denominational allegiances. It was also agreed that intercommunion would be established at the eucharistic table: the Archbishop of Canterbury would come to Georgia to celebrate eucharist at the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, and the Georgian Baptist Archbishop would celebrate the eucharist either at Canterbury or Westminster Abbey.  The resignations of Archbishop Rowan Williams and Dr. Paul Avis, a key figure in the dialogue, have caused a temporary suspension of the dialogue. The new Archbishop has showed his interest in the dialogue between the two churches and supported the idea of developing our bilateral relations on a solid institutional level.

“I need to ask you for a favour,” I told the archbishop at the end of our conversation.

“What is it?” The archbishop raised his eyebrows in curiosity.

“Well…” I started slowly, “I have an icon of Christ Pantocrator which has been with me for quite some time. It has travelled with me wherever I went. It has been a witness of all my struggles, bereavements, suffering and also all the joy I have experienced in celebrating liturgies all over the world.”

“Yes,” said the archbishop energetically, trying to understand what my icon had to do with our conversation.

“I am finishing my time in this country. A new stage is going to start in my life soon. You on the other hand are starting your archiepiscopal ministry. So I would like to leave this icon with you. I believe it will offer the peaceful presence of Christ…”

With these words I produced the icon from my man-bag and handed it over to the archbishop. He took the icon in his hands and then reverently placed it on his laps, looking at it with excitement.

“How extraordinary! How extraordinary…” he kept saying as he looked at the icon on his lap.

“This icon continues traditional style of Georgian iconography, yet it offers something very contemporary,” Jonathan explained.

“Yes it does!” agreed the archbishop immediately.

“Shall we pray?” asked the archbishop, and we did pray. I prayed for him and he prayed for me as both of us realized that we were at the beginning of new stages in our lives, him in Britain and me in Georgia. That was the end of our encounter.

Within a fortnight I was to see him being enthroned in St Augustine’s see in Canterbury.

On 21March it was a bright and sunny morning in Canterbury. The population of that city had significantly grown because of the people who had come for the enthronement and people who came to make sure it went well without any incident. The narrow streets of the mediaeval city were packed with tourists, pilgrims and visiting clergy. Within a few minutes I started seeing familiar faces. The first person I bumped into was Metropolitan Kallistos, an elderly Orthodox writer and educator based in Oxford. Then, wherever I looked, there were familiar faces. I went to Marks and Spencer, not to shop but to make use of their toilet facilities, and there in the toilet I met the chair of the House of Laity of the Church of England, Tim Hind.  The world is very small and in Canterbury it became even smaller.

The enthronement was a most spectacular event. It was attended by two thousand people in the cathedral and hundreds of people outside of it. Those who were outside had a chance to follow the service on large screens. Perhaps they saw more of the enthronement than those who sat inside. Among the attending dignitaries there were the British royal family, represented by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker of parliament, and a wide spectrum of the British establishment.  There were of course clergy, lawyers, barristers, the laity and also a heavy presence of police and security.

When our procession entered the west door of the Cathedral all of us where overwhelmed by the beauty of this ancient cathedral which that day looked especially celebratory and dignified.  The British have inherited from the Victorians a tremendous sense of

beautiful pageantry.  I cannot think of any other church or any other nation that does their ceremonies so beautifully and meaningfully. Of course there were endless processions and recessions throughout the entire service.

The Revd. John Rees, the registrar of the Canterbury Diocese, read the Royal Charter very warmly. The archbishop was enthroned by the dean of the cathedral in the chancel where St. Augustine’s marble see (chair) is located overlooking the high altar. From there

African dancers led him from the chancel to the nave of the cathedral where he read the Gospel and was returned to the chancel where he delivered his sermon.  As the dancers moved down the nave I could not help noticing Prince Charles’s surprised look in his stall (seat) and the giggling faces of Ed Miliband and the Prime Minister across from the Prince’s stall.

The archbishop’s sermon was very good. It was based on the Gospel story of Jesus’ walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). The archbishop spoke of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water in fear and trembling, and added, “As you may imagine, I relate to him at this point.” We all laughed at that, even though the archbishop did not appear to be trembling or fearful. He appeared very calm, confident and determined.

For me personally the highlight of the entire service was the dialogue that was exchanged between the archbishop, who had just arrived at the door of the cathedral, and a young Asian girl. The girl was very pretty, in a lovely Asian dress, and spoke most calmly and beautifully.

When the archbishop arrived at the West Door it was closed. He struck it three times with his pastoral staff. The doors were opened and a solemn fanfare sounded. The girl stood in front of the archbishop and the two entered into dialogue:

‘The girl:  We greet you in the name of Jesus Christ. Who are you and why do you request entry?

The Archbishop: I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God, to travel with you and in his service together.

The girl: Why have you been sent to us?

The Archbishop: I am sent as archbishop to serve you, to proclaim the love of Christ and with you to worship and love him with heart and soul, mind and strength.

The Girl: How do you come among us and with what confidence?

The Archbishop: I come knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in weakness and fear and in much trembling.

The Girl: Let us humble ourselves before God and together seek his mercy and strength.’

I thought it was a most beautiful and meaningful part of the enthronement liturgy. I also thought that this particular piece belonged to the traditional enthronement liturgy. But I was wrong. It had been written by Archbishop Justin himself. I was very moved by this. In my mind’s eye I saw my Lambeth image of Justin Welby, as the servant of God with a tray in his hands serving the needs of thousands of people in humility and kindness, but with firmness and determination.  He is also wearing the cross of nails on his chest which for me bears witness to his determination to work for reconciliation both within the Anglican Communion and beyond. He is somewhat similar to the newly-inaugurated bishop of Rome, the Pope, who seems to be kind yet firm.  It was interesting that both Justin and Francis where inaugurated in the same week. “Buy one get one free,” as Justin joked about this in his after-dinner talk after the enthronement.

The enthronement was a truly amazing occasion. Millions of people watched the event both in the UK and the world over.  But I ought to tell you more of what only a few saw and experienced before the enthronement in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.  The crypt is the most prayerful place one could imagine. Under the Romanesque arches you could feel that this is a place where thousands of people have prayed in the course of centuries. The crypt can tell you almost everything about the main historical developments in the history of Western Christianity.  Here you can see a French Huguenot chapel which was kindly given to French Protestants when they fled Catholic persecution in France. This chapel should be considered as the earliest expression of British ecumenism, long before the ecumenical movement was even conceived. There is also St. Gabriel’s Chapel – my favourite. Much to my amazement it gets very little if any publicity. It is the only place in the cathedral with frescos that survived the Reformation simply because the chapel entrance had been sealed off in the Middle Ages and was reopened only in the 19th century.  I have spent hours in this chapel admiring the incredible beauty of 12th century masterpieces. This is the place where I really feel at home. You will not find any reproductions or books of those frescos, either in the Cathedral shops or anywhere else. I cannot understand how these frescos can be ignored in England.

A few days before the enthronement some post arrived in my pigeon-hole at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. I got a formal invitation letter for the enthronement, a ticket to Tea at Shirley Hall after the enthronement, near the Cathedral, an invitation card for The Nicaean Club Enthronement Dinner in the presence of the new archbishop, and, most importantly, a small purple ticket.

At the sight of the purple ticket I could not help remembering a funny incident that had happened to me several years ago in Rome. I had received a green ticket to attend a mass which was to be celebrated by the late John Paul II at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall in Rome. I arrived at an appointed time at the entrance of this magnificent church with my green ticket in my hand, being escorted to the gate by a Stigmatini father who had hosted me at the fifth century monastery of St. Agnes, Rome. My host presented me to a smartly dressed civilian in a black suit and tie who appeared to be in charge of all the logistics related to the mass and told him in a low, sort of secretive voice: ‘Vescovo della Chiesa Evangelica Battista della Georgia’ (Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia). The civilian commander looked at my green ticket impatiently and snatched it from my hand and angrily handed to me a blue ticket.  Foolishly I did not read what was written on the blue ticket. I simply followed a young priest whom the civilian boss appointed to escort me. I obediently followed the priest. After a long walk through ancient corridors we ended up not in the Church as I had expected but in a large room where a lot of priests were busy robing. The young priest stopped me at the entrance, disappeared for a few seconds, and reappeared with clerical vestments in his hands. Now I realized that something had gone wrong and they thought I was a Roman Catholic. I told him in English that I was an Evangelical Baptist Bishop in Georgia and I was not supposed to robe.

“Bishop?!” asked the young priest in broken English.

“Yes, Bishop, the Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia!” I spoke as clearly as I could.

“Aha, Vescovo?!” He asked again (Vescovo means bishop in Italian).

“Yes, Vescovo, Vescovo della Chiesa Evangelica Battista della Georgia,” I answered him back.

“Uno momento,” said the young priest, who went elsewhere. It did not take long before he was back. This time he brought with him an episcopal mitre and vestments. Apparently he thought I would not accept a priest’s vestments because I was a bishop, so was kind enough to supply me with a bishop’s vestments. For a second a wicked idea crossed my mind. “If I go with the flow I will be the first Baptist bishop to con-celebrate the eucharist with the bishop of Rome.” Then I quickly realized that it would be unfair to deceive the Church of Rome and shouted out loud:

“Does anybody in this room speak English?!!” A young Spanish priest timorously raised his hand and made his way to me.

“Listen, can you kindly explain to this father, that I am a bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia and I am here to attend the papal mass only, not to robe, not to concelebrate?” The Spanish priest explained what I had said to the young Italian priest who pointed to my blue ticket. I looked at the ticket which said that the ticket-holder was invited to con-celebrate the eucharist with the Pope.  After lengthy explanations I was finally taken to the sanctuary and was seated right at the altar where John Paul II celebrated his eucharistic liturgy.

When I saw the purple ticket from Canterbury I read it twice very carefully, thinking of the blue ticket which I had received in Rome. The purple ticket permitted the ticket-holder to enter the precincts of the cathedral and the crypt for robing. Those who were robing and participating in the procession, the purple ticket holders, were asked to be at the crypt one hour and a half before the service started at 2 pm. Before I even entered the crypt in the precincts of the cathedral I bumped into Prince Ghazi of Jordan whom I had met at my college at Oxford a few months earlier at an interfaith conference on love in Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. Prof. Paul Fiddes, my doctoral tutor, was the main convener of the conference. Prince Ghazi spoke about love in the Muslim tradition.

“Are you not cold?” asked the prince staring at my bare feet and sandals.

“No, I am used to it.” I gave the standard answer as we made our way to the crypt.

Most of the people arrived at the crypt on time. The crypt was divided into various sections and supplied with long rows of hangers.   There were sections for Anglican bishops and clergy, and sections for ecumenical and inter-faith participants in the procession. Each section had its own minders. The minder of my section was an Anglican woman priest whom I had met in 2006 in Porto Allegre, Brazil. We were part of the same Bible-study group at the WCC assembly along with a Roman Catholic bishop from Glasgow, an evangelical pastor from Aleppo, Syria, and an Ethiopian layman. Soon after we met she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then we lost contact for several years. I had presumed that she had died. But apparently she did not. She was standing there as healthy-looking and enthusiastic as I knew her from our encounter in Brazil. That was a lovely surprise.

What do you do when you end up in a place were there are top representatives of all religions of the world?  The most natural thing is to talk to other guests. There was something magic about the crypt. It made all the guests equal. Emotionally it was a brutally egalitarian space. You could talk with high-profile Roman Catholic cardinals, Anglican, Orthodox, Oriental and Protestant prelates and bishops, Buddhist monks, Jewish Rabbis, Muslim imams, Sikhs, and fire-worshipping priests on an equal footing.

I could not hide my excitement about the place.

“This is a marvellous place!”  I told an Anglican bishop in the crypt.

“Yes it is. You can see so many prominent people here. If you do not see some people here perhaps they are not worth seeing?” he answered semi-jokingly, semi-seriously.

Looking at the crowd in the crypt I felt how closely we are all related and how small this world really is. I was looking at the faces of the people I had known and met many years ago, yet I could still remember some stories about them and about my time with them. There was Mario of the St. Eggidio Community in Rome. A charismatic and energetic lay leader, full of charm and humour. Last time I saw him he was very big. Now he has lost several kilos and looked very slim and youthful. It is interesting when I see people who I had not seen for a while – I remember some peculiar features about them.  When I saw Mario in the crypt I suddenly remembered that he loves fish but cannot eat a whole fish because he is scared of the look of fish-eyes.

There in the crypt I saw Fr. Philip, the abbot of the monastery in Shevetogne. This is a fascinating Benedictine monastery that was founded to convert Orthodox Christians to Catholicism, but ultimately the monastery became not a proselytizing but a bridge-building agent between Western and Eastern Christians. In the monastery they have two chapels where services are simultaneously held in Eastern and Western liturgical traditions. I stayed in the monastery a long time ago and enjoyed the gifts of the ecumenical hospitality which they so kindly offer. Father Philip is a very kind, soft-spoken and caring character. When I saw him in the crypt I remembered that since he is a Flemish-born person, he spends an awful lot of time preparing his sermons in French for the mainly French-speaking community.

I was most delighted to see brother Alois, the abbot of an ecumenical community in Taizé in France. Brother Alois succeeded Brother Roger Schultz, the founder of the community. Alois is a very humble and thoughtful person. It is always a pleasure to speak to him. He was very interested to learn about a monastic order of New Desert Brothers and Sisters that has been founded in our church. He thought they would be happy to host them in Taizé for a fortnight to share their experience and liturgical tradition.

As I was talking to Jonathan Edwards of the Baptist Union of Great Britain somebody came to me and introduced himself in a distinctly American Accent. This was Rick Warren, a well-known American minister. It was also fascinating to speak with bishops, from Syria, the Middle East, and Armenia. It was particularly exciting to have a little chat with the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was pleased to know that we have a female bishop in Georgia and expressed her wish to foster some sort of conversations between our churches.

I loved every minute I spent in the crypt but it would be dishonest of me if I do not tell  you of a couple of rather unpleasant experiences  as well. They did not necessarily cast any shadow over the atmosphere in the crypt but reminded me that we still live in the world which is divided and politicised.

This is the first nasty tale of my time in the crypt. The Russian delegation arrived in the crypt a little bit late. By that time I was already robed and ready for the procession. The Russian delegation was led by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev whom I had known from my early visit to Oxford in 1990s.  He was a doctoral student and we ate together at Tamara Grdzelidze’s place who was also a doctoral student from Georgia. Both Tamara and Hilarion were Metropolitan Kalisto’s students. Since that time Hilarion has became a leading hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and I had became the Archbishop of the Georgia EBC.

Our relationship had changed. The Russian invasion of Georgia made us political enemies. Hilarion had avoided contact and talks with me at every European ecumenical gathering. Despite this I decided to go and greet him as warmly as I could. Now in the presence of all the clergy from the rest of world I was embarrassed by him.  I greeted him in Russian and Georgian (he knows some Georgian) and gave him a fraternal embrace. He stood back with an ossified face.

“I am glad to see you,” I said to him in English. He stood motionless without looking at me. I stood aside since I did not want to endure further humiliation by him.  That was very sad. My attempt to re-build relationships had failed. Hilarion, who used to be a very kind and gentle-spirited man, has become known in religious circles as an arrogant and rude person. I do not believe this is natural for him but since he has been in the Moscow Patriarchate he must do as ‘Romans do.’  As I learned later, Hilaron was upset at the enthronement because he was not given a special chair and he was to sit along with other ecumenical guests on the opposite side to where I sat. It was ironic that he had to look at me throughout the entire service.   He was also upset that he did not have a place of greater honour at the dinner after the enthronement and therefore, as everybody saw and commented on, he ate his dinner and left the hall before the newly-enthroned archbishop delivered his inaugural dinner speech.

Soon after the enthronement Hilarion wrote a letter to Archbishop Justin where he said that allowing female bishops would lead to the elimination of the theoretical possibility of the Orthodox Church recognizing the hierarchy of the Anglican Church.

“We know that the Anglican Church is now going through a difficult time and various views, positions, and parties co-exist in it,” Hilarion said. “However, we really hope that the traditional understanding of Christian morals and the church system will prevail in this polemic.”  This I find so amusing. What are traditional Christian morals and church system for him?  Is it traditional Christian morals for the ROC to sleep in the same bed with President Putin? (Figuratively speaking) Or persecute the girls who raised their voice against it? Is it traditional Christian moral for a church to covet, gain and posses power, possessions and wealth? How can a church which has blessed and supported Russian wars in Chechnya and Georgia teach the church of England about morals and chastise it for welcoming women into episcopacy?  It seems to me Russia also needs the top hierarch like Bishop Francis of Rome who could help them to find out what are ‘traditional Christian Morals.’

I am afraid I have to tell you yet another unpleasant tale. Among the crowd in the crypt I detected Mary Tanner, a great British ecumenical figure. I immediately ventured to see her and say hello. Next to her there was a tall man in his mid-fifties with a pectoral cross on his chest. That person was the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.  Our church had applied for full membership of the WCC more than five years ago. Our application was strongly supported by three founding members of the WCC: the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of England and the American Baptist Churches in the USA.  Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union our church was a member of the WCC through a large ecclesial body, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of the USSR. After the dissolution of the USSR the AUCECB was also dissolved. Fifteen different independent church bodies were created instead of it. None of them, except our church in Georgia, has been willing to continue their involvement with the WCC or other ecumenical organizations. The majority of them even became increasingly anti-ecumenical.  Despite several attempts to have a dialogue with the WCC about our membership nothing has been achieved. The WCC has also ignored the fact the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has been repeatedly victimized and abused by some fundamentalist Christian groups for its strong ecumenical profile and ecumenical activities.  In 2003 our cathedral was raided by fundamentalists to prevent us from holding an ecumenical service. This incident became known internationally and Edward Schevardnadze, then the President of Georgia, came to our cathedral to offer his apologies for not being able to avert this violence against the ecumenical fellowship in Georgia. And such a church which has taken a lot of risks for the ecumenical movement has been denied membership of the WCC, the top ecumenical organization in the world. I have no illusions about this organisation.  I do realise that the WCC is a shadow of what it was in the past – partly due to lack of funds, and partly due to the bureaucratisation of the organisation. Despite of this our church has felt strongly that we should be a part of the WCC out of our commitment to Ecumenism.

Now in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral there was a key WCC figure with whom I could talk about our membership on neutral ground, as it were. I introduced myself and asked him whether we could talk about our membership of the WCC. The General Secretary reluctantly agreed to talk.

“You know we have applied for WCC membership more than five years ago and have not heard from you since then.” I started to introduce the subject.

“Yes, I know, I am well aware of your application and all the support that you have from other churches,” the General Secretary coldly interrupted.

“I am glad you are aware of our application but we have been expecting your decision for five years. We will be happy to come to Geneva in a small delegation to answer the questions you might have about our church,” I said.  I tried to negotiate.

“You will not be accepted into the membership until the Georgian Orthodox Church becomes a member of the WCC,” declared the General Secretary, looking slightly embarrassed. I was shocked to hear such a nonsensical answer from the leader of the WCC. The Georgian Orthodox Church left the WCC in 1997 under the influence of the rising force of religious nationalism and has totally turned its back on the ecumenical movement. The church has no desire to return to the Ecumenical movement. Therefore the General Secretary’s reply was definitely ill-informed and ill-advised.

“What if the Georgian Orthodox Church never returns to the WCC?” I asked him trying to hide my frustration.

“If the Orthodox never come back to the WCC we will never receive you into the WCC!” he replied arrogantly.

“Well done!” I said ironically and withdrew from the conversation. Poor Mary Tanner stood there a little embarrassed but she said nothing. I do not think she could say much.

I have never heard of one church being barred until another church in the same country wants to join. I can only wonder that he holds information against the Georgian Baptist Church, which he does not want to reveal.

My speculation is that Russian Orthodox dos not want to have a Georgian voice to be heard in the WCC. In 2008 soon after the Russian invasion of Georgia the leadership of the Conference of European Churches decided to visit Georgia in solidarity with our church  which is a member church of the CEC.  They drove from Armenia. On the way to Georgia the CEC General Secretary, the Venerable Collin Williams received a call from Moscow Patriarchate. He was threatened that they would withdraw from the CEC if they visited Georgia. It was rather brave of the CEC leadership to say that the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia was a member of church and it was their sacred duty to visit it in the time of war. Would the WCC do the same if we ware a member church of the organisation? This I do not know.

The WCC has become yet another bureaucratic institution which does not have a soul and has no signs of the ecumenical enthusiasm the early founders of the ecumenical movement used to have. Otherwise how can you explain such a heartless attitude to a church which has endured so much because of its support of the ecumenical movement and its belief in the unity of the church of Christ? How long will Christian leaders continue to play the games of the powerful? How long will they keep casting down the lowly, weak and poor, and lift up the mighty?!  Had my church been powerful and wealthy the General Secretary would not dare to talk to me like that because it is power that matters for little bureaucrats like him. To calm down I touched the encolpion on my chest and looked at the figure of Mary and the baby Jesus on it and moved to another section of the crypt.

Perhaps I should tell you a little bit about my encolpion. Usually an encolpion is a small icon or a reliquary worn by hierarchs of the Church in the East. Initially I wore not an encolpion but a pectoral cross until the late 1990s.

After a fundamentalist attack on our church more than ten years ago I went to the Georgian President’s office to place our formal complaint. On my way to the government building I received a call from an Old Orthodox Archbishop, Iona Chakhava.

“Vladika (Church Slavonic for my lord), we have to meet immediately. I have business to settle with you,”  Archbishop Iona insisted.

“Can’t it wait for this afternoon? I am going to the President’s office.” I tried to negotiate but it did not work. He told me it was urgent but would not tell me what sort of business he was going to settle with me.

“If you come to the President’s office immediately we can have a brief meeting here.”  I had to succumb. Within ten minutes or so the archbishop arrived.

“What is it, Vladika?” I asked him rather impatiently. “Do tell me quickly what I can  do for you, but bear in mind that I have an appointment up there,”  I told the archbishop and pointed to the President’s office.

“The President’s office will wait,” started the archbishop firmly in a didactic tone, and raised his index finger. “You are a bishop and you should always wear an encolpion wherever you go.”

“Is this all you wanted to tell me?!” I asked him rather cynically.

“No,Vladika,”  said the archbishop proudly, and dived into the deep pocket of his black cassock. For a second or two he fiddled in his pocket and then produced from it a simple yet beautiful encolpion with a long chain.  “Now take this and wear it wherever you go! This was my business.”  He placed the chain on my neck and went away. It proved to be  one of our last meetings. Soon after this the archbishop died. It took me several years to  realize why he gave me that encolpion that day.

The encolpion has an enamel icon of the Mother of God with the child Jesus. Mary is pointing her hand towards Jesus. Such a posture in Eastern iconography is called a hodegitria  (Greek for ‘She shows the way’) and represents  the Theotokos (‘God birther’) holding the child Jesus at her side while pointing to him as the true way  for mankind. This icon is all about the incarnation of the word of God: God who is represented in the child Jesus becomes small and Mary the Theotokos, representing the whole of humanity, becomes great.  The fact that on the icon Jesus is small and Mary is big should not mislead us. Greatness is represented in a small and weak child.  Subsequently one can argue that in God smallness and weakness is not an issue. In fact God might look more kindly on those who are weak and suppressed by the mighty.

Since that encounter at the President’s office I have almost always been wearing an encolpion with the icon of the Theotokos with the child Jesus as a constant reminder of the power of the powerless. I only wear another encolpion with Abraham’s guests (‘the Old Testament Trinity’ in Eastern tradition) when I attend meetings with our Muslim brothers and sisters to make a point about our common heritage in the Abrahamic tradition.

My encounter with the WCC General Secretary convinced me that we as Christians still need to learn the lessons of the incarnation. Saying to a small church that she cannot be a part of the fellowship of Christian churches, because of some bigger churches which  either are not a part of the fellowship or for whom the fellowship is only a political arena, is simply a betrayal of the principles of the incarnation.

I think both Metropolitan Hilarion, and the WCC General Secretary need a lot of prayer that the Holy Spirit liberates them from arrogance and ill-considered political ambitions.

After the lovely reception at the University of Kent dining hall I travelled on the coach with other participants to Lambeth Palace. On the way to London I sat with Dame Rosemary Spencer, a former diplomat and extremely knowledgeable person in the realm of politics. Dame Rosemary has travelled to Georgia and made friends with our woman bishop, Rusudan. The two of us had a rather lively conversation about Georgia, the Middle East, and Europe. It was midnight when our coach arrived at the gate of Lambeth Palace.

From Lambeth I was driven back to Oxford by Father Hugh Wybrew, a very good friend of ours, a formidable liturgical scholar and one of the best experts, if not the best, on Orthodox Christianity  in Great Britain. This was not the first time I had been driven in his car. Several months earlier I had had the pleasure of his company all the way up and down to Scotland. We attended together a conference dedicated to the memory of Father Alexander Men, a very progressive Russian Orthodox Priest who was brutally murdered in early the 1990s, presumably for his progressive views and for having a Jewish background.

On the way to Oxford we exchanged various small tales from our experience in Canterbury. We both agreed that the Church of England has got the right leader in the person of Archbishop Welby. Within one week the Church in the West celebrated the inaugurations of two leaders – Francis, the Bishop of Rome and Justin, Archbishop of Canterbury – the first putting special emphasis on the needs of the poor and weak, and the latter on reconciliation. It is my prayer that both succeed in their visions and aspirations. The messages about modesty and care for the poor radiating from Francis, the Bishop of Rome, will ultimately make an impact on the rest of the Christian churches which traditionally tried to imitate the Roman obsession with power and wealth, especially in Eastern Christianity where bishops have become princes of the church, gaining a lot of wealth and possessions, rather than being servants of the servants.  Similarly Archbishop Justin’s efforts to reconcile will no doubt make an impact on the rest of the Christian churches in the world.

The day after the inauguration The Times published an article about the enthronement titled ‘I am Justin, a Jogging Servant of Christ.’ On a photo attached to the article I was prominently featured along with Armenian and Roman Catholic bishops and Buddhist leaders (The Times, 22 March 2013, p.5), although I was mistaken for a Syrian Orthodox hierarch. In the article I did not get any mention (why should I?) but my hat did, as being ‘magnificent, boxy, black.’ I had never thought of it as magnificent, it is a simple hat made by my friend, Manana Beridze. I am sure she will be happy to know about it.

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9 Responses to “Tales of Canterbury” an eyewitness reflection by Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashivili

  1. What a delightful, discursive, chatty, small-townish, terribly personal, account of the ways of this world. How small each detail, even the topics of political interest, seem, in the incidental chatting! It makes me wonder how any of this can ever reach the hearts of people continents away, in their small, personal lives. And I suppose such a report of this may reach them better than anything else. I have never seen a Baptist dressed like this before!!! I would have felt a rube in that crypt, had I managed to be there. All together, but not at all together, would be my heading for this event. And I guess it was like this at the first Easter, and before then, and until now. Thanks, Maren, for sharing this piece and this man.

  2. Marjorie says:

    A lively and informative peek behind the scenes; enjoyable and bit of reading. Thank you.

    Concerning the sad issues of pride and arrogance; let’s pray earnestly for a renewed spirit among the leadership. “Less of self and more of thee” as the old hymn goes, would be a good thing for all of us to keep in mind. Ever. hopeful.

    • Maren says:

      Thanks Marjorie and for all your posts!! How lovely!

      I think that what counteracts the pride and arrogance is Malkhaz’s simple honesty and great sense of humor — seeing the humorous in himself and others.

  3. Marjorie says:

    A lively and informative peek behind the scenes; enjoyable bit of reading. Thank you.

  4. Marjorie says:

    A lively and informative peek behind the scenes; an enjoyable bit of reading. Thank you.

  5. Marjorie says:

    That’s about it!

  6. Marjorie says:

    Oops! My sincere apologies, for all that copy, Maren! It was meant to be ONE single, reduced correction, not additional emails. So sorry, for that!
    An error made each time “reply” came on the screen, for I would try again, thinking my message had not gone through” I finally, caught on!!!

    Yes, Maren, the Archbishop of Georgia has a fine sense of humor and is a gifted storyteller! It was a pleasure to read his colorful account. Thanks for posting it. Marjorie

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