Malkhaz Songulashvili – Tales of Canterbury – 5 – Unpleasant Surprises (UPDATE)

Orthodox delegates at Canterburry
Orthodox delegates, with Russian Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, at Canterburry
(Rev. Patrick Irwin, Priest of the Anglican Church in Bucharest is also in this picture)

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 Alfeyev 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 Kallistos’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, Hilarion 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.

* * *

I have received later on, from Archbishop Malkhaz, the following addition to the text:

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.

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 interrupting me.

“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. 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.


Author: DanutM

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

One thought on “Malkhaz Songulashvili – Tales of Canterbury – 5 – Unpleasant Surprises (UPDATE)”

  1. Rusii, tot rusi, crestini or ba. Patriarhul se poarta ca rusii si nu ca romanii.
    Iar domnul ecumenic de la WCC dovedeste cit de mult conteaza pt ecumenisti, ecumenismul: o ceapa degerata. Totul e politica!
    Un lucru mi-a placut si mie la Patriahul rus: chestia cu ordinarea femeilor. In rest, Putin al-II-lea…


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