Malkhaz Songulashvili – Tales of Canterbury – 1 – A Private Audience

Georgian Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz (third from the left), among other religious
leaders, at the enthronement of Justin Welby, the New Archbishop of Canterbury

NOTE: I have received today this text, from my friend Archbishop Malkhaz, together with the following note:

Dear Friends
Please find enclosed my reflections on the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I dedicate it to my Romanian Anglican friend, Dr Danut Manastireanu.

Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili

* * *

“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.

 (To be continued)

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: