This is how it started. But before I continue I need to introduce my friends. Please meet Bishop Stephen Platten. He is a good friend of mine and of Georgia. I met him almost twenty years ago. He was a young priest in training with the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who visited us in our cathedral in Tbilisi and delivered a sermon. Twenty years ago I was also young, believe it or not. I was still a layman and taught at the Tbilisi State University. I translated for the Archbishop at the Baptist Cathedral and was invited to go to a dinner given in his honour. The dinner was given at the Palace of Marriages, where the Soviet version of a wedding was usually held. The building looked like a cathedral with a bell tower and large bells which did not toll. At the dinner the archbishop asked about my work and life.
“If there is anything I could do, do not hesitate to ask,” said the archbishop out of sheer politeness. But I thought I could ask something.
“I am translating The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis but we have not secured copyright from the publishers to publish it in Georgian. Can you help with this?”, I asked the archbishop.
“We will be happy to help,” said the archbishop in a deep voice and called his ecumenical officer.
“Would you help this friend of ours to secure copyright for The Chronicles of Narnia?”, the archbishop asked his ecumenical officer who looked rather puzzled by the archbishop’s request.
“Of course we will,” said the officer and looked at me with a certain amount of curiosity. This officer was Canon Stephen Platten, whom I had already met. Neither Stephen nor I would have thought that day that we would become close friends and later on would be called “the terrible twins.” Stephen was soon to become the Dean of Norwich, then some years later Bishop of Wakefield, and ended up in the House of Lords at Westminster. Now Stephen was coming to Georgia as a leading bishop of the Church of England on Georgia and also a leading bishop in the House of Lords on the issues of security and defence. Bishop Stephen was to be accompanied by Dr. Charles Reed, an analytical thinker at Church House, London. The visit of Bishop Stephen was to overlap with the visit of the American delegation, which was going to be a logistical challenge. But our Bishops Merab, Rusudan and Ilia were ready to make these two visits as comfortable as possible.
Let me now introduce another good friend of mine who was coming to Georgia with a delegation of American women. Please meet Dr Roy Medley. He was born in another Georgia – not the real one. He is the most warm, kind and wise person you could meet. He is the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches in the USA, and at the same time the President-elect of the National Council of Churches in the USA. This is what his denomination is called – they represent some of the most progressive Baptist churches in the world. They are ecumenical through and through, and fiercely support the cause of social justice and peace all over the world. The martyr of the social rights movement in the USA, Martin Luther King, belonged to Roy’s denomination. They are rightly proud of this. Roy came to Georgia in 2004. I think this is a correct date. During his visit we walked a lot. We went to the 6th century monasteries in South East Georgia; we walked in pilgrimage to the 2nd century cave city of Uplistsikhe with a large group of young pilgrims from our cathedral; and on Palm Sunday we walked through the city of Tbilisi to our cathedral (this was the most difficult bit for Roy because he wore a nice pair of black Sunday shoes). He was to leave the next day. As we walked through the city Roy turned to me and said:
“I am leaving tomorrow morning for the States, you know, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. Why do you ask?”
“I hope you are not going to walk me to the airport! I insist we have a car,” smiled Roy beautifully. But, despite his charming smile, I could not help noticing a sort of ‘wicked’ look in his eyes. And I was right. Some time later I received from him a package of white tee-shirts with an inscription on the back: ‘I have survived Malkhaz.’ That was wicked. I thought Roy would never come back to Georgia but this time I was wrong. Last Autumn I received a letter from him saying that he was bringing a delegation of lay and ordained women to Georgia to explore the interfaith experience of our church in Georgia. He had been particularly amazed at the personal friendship we had developed with Muslim friends of ours. Roy asked me to design a programme for his visit under the condition that I should not include in the programme any lengthy walks! So I did not.