Malkhaz Songulashvili – Tales of Canterbury – 6 – The Encolpion

An Orthodox encolpion

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 mad by my friend, Manana Beridze. I am sure she will be happy to know about it.

The End

(English language version edited by Bishop Michael Cleaves for Archbishop Malkhaz.)

Author: DanutM

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

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