Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 6 – A Georgian supra

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Georgian meal al Malkhaz’s wedding

I went for dinner to the home of one of my young friends who grew up ‘in my hands’, as we say in Georgia.  His name is Dato Varduashvili. He is in his early twenties.  For me he is a beacon of hope for Georgia. Dato was born into a dysfunctional family in a rural village. His father was abusive and he did his best see that his son would not make any progress in life.  But Dato did something incredible. He was 16 years old when he decided to take the charge of his life. He borrowed about 100 GBP and went to Azerbaijan to do some business, without knowing any languages spoken in Baku no Azerbaijani and no Russian. He started with buying linen in Azerbaijan and selling it in Georgia. Within a year he managed to make enough money to a start business in the cattle trade. He brought calves from Azerbaijan, fattened them for a few months and sold them in Georgia… within two years he was able to buy a flat in Tbilisi, and to pay the fees for his university course, which he did on a part-time basis.  Within another few years he restored his parental home in the village, despite his father’s objection. He bought another flat, bought a vehicle, and started refurbishing the first flat he had acquired.  The secret of his success was and remains his mother’s love and support. Dato wanted me to see the flat he had refurbished beautifully, and have a meal with my guests and friends from the church.

The meal at Dato’s place was wonderful. Both Dato and his Mum cooked numerous eastern Georgian dishes for us. There is no Georgian ‘supra’ (the table feast) without a toast master.  I was asked to do the job, which I happily accepted. Originally Georgians drank three toasts; one for God, one for the King, and one for the homeland. But in the course of history we made incredible progress and the number of toasts grew from three to 23 plus.  The key is that you do not have to drink the glass to the bottom unless the toast master says the magic word ‘bolomde’ (to the bottom) and then you have to empty the glass.  If you do not know the rules of the Georgian supra you might find yourself drunk at the third or fourth glass. Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 6 – A Georgian supra”

Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 5 – Meeting with officials

Dato Usupashvili
Dato Usupashvili, Speaker of the Georgian Parliament

That night we went to meet Bishop Stephen and Charles Reed at the airport. For whatever reason European flights arrive at Tbilisi airport at the most cruel times, between 3 am and 5 am. I could not sleep that night either.  We were a little worried about their flights because of the heavy snow in England. But the flight arrived on time. Bishop Stephen wore a large Siberian fur hat which seemed most appropriate for the freezing weather in Georgia.  That was Sunday morning. Within a few hours we were to celebrate a liturgy in the Peace Cathedral, where Bishop Stephen is well-known and admired.  He gave a very short yet very memorable sermon on his experience in a desert.  We con-celebrated the Eucharist in the liturgical tradition of St. John Chrysostom in Georgian and English and left the cathedral well before the benediction for an appointment with the chair of the new parliament.

Dato Usupashvili, the chairman, gave us enough time to cover a lot of areas of interest. He spoke with us openly and candidly about political tension in the country, about the plans of the parliament, and also about issues related to religious liberty.

“For me it is most important than the individual has complete freedom in making his or her decision about faith and religion. This is what I stand for and this is what I would like to safeguard for the people of Georgia,” declared the chairman firmly.  Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 5 – Meeting with officials”

Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 4 – Beni

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I accepted their suggestion to celebrate liturgy, to preach and to baptise with certain reservations in my heart. The feast of the Baptism of Jesus was one of the feasts I used to like a lot.  I was baptised on that day on January 19th in the river Mtkvary near Mtskheta when I was 17.  Georgia was still a part of the Soviet Union where religion was under severe control and scrutiny by the Communist state. I was about to graduate from high school and was very keen on going to university. My baptism and membership of the church could be an insuperable hindrance to going to university.  But I felt strongly that I had to make my decision.  I went to my parents’ bedroom at 5 am and asked my father to baptise me. He was an ordained minister of the Church. The 19th of January marked the beginning of my journey as a Christian.  It used to be like a birthday date. I used to receive cards and letters on January 19th. Not any more. For me this date became the most poignant day in my life.  A few years ago, on January 19th, my adopted son, Beni, was killed in a freak accident.  I lost a son, a confidant and a fiercely loyal friend.  The day which I used to celebrate became a day which I will mourn for the rest of my life.

Beni came into my life in his late teens from a very abusive family. He had experienced a lot of pain and suffering. The only light in his life was his mother’s warmth and care. He was a mischievous child but we made a lot of progress together. I taught him literature, history and English. He did some studies abroad, and then entered Tbilisi State University and studied culture and archaeology.  I baptised him in the river Aragvi and I married him and his girlfriend Nino in my private chapel; I dedicated their child Nicolas when he was still very young. For Beni I was certainly a fatherly character in his life but his experience with his own father was so painful that he told me: “I cannot call you father, I hate this word.” So he called me ‘mother’ instead.

On January 19th I was returning from Ilkley, in Yorkshire, where I had preached in the parish church of St. Margaret, being invited and warmly hosted by Fr. Philip Gray and his most friendly family. I think it was near Derby when I received a call from the chaplain of Lincoln College, Fr. Gregory Platten, a son of Bishop Stephen Platten.

“Hello Malkhaz,” he said, “Where are you?” Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 4 – Beni”

Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 3 – Back in Georgia

Three bishops ordained
Malkhaz and the other Georgian Baptist bishops

Our flight arrived at Tbilisi airport at 4 am on January 18th. I wanted to be there before Stephen and Roy arrived.  People in Tbilisi knew that I was arriving that morning but I kept it as a surprise that Ala was arriving with me as well. We were met at the airport by family and friends.  Our son Alex was particularly amazed to see his Mum coming into the arrivals hall. His eyes widened and his face went pale. The Tbilisi sky was crystal clear and stars were shining brightly. It was also freezing cold.

We went to our place, which is my parental home. The upper floor where our bedroom is had not been heated during the winter.  It is usual practice when you go to bed to undress but we could not do it; we had to put more clothes on before going to bed.  Even that did not help. We were too tired to think of hot water bottles. Ala and I hugged each other and tried to warm up. We never went to sleep – it was too cold. By the time we felt warmer it was time to get up for a meeting with the bishops.  We spend almost the entire day synchronizing and planning the details for the visit of the two different delegations, with two different agendas.   At the end of the day we had finalized both programmes, made numerous telephone calls and agreed arrangements.

“Now, about tomorrow’s programme!”, said Bishop Ilia. Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 3 – Back in Georgia”

Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 2 – Bishop Stephen Platten

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Anglican Bishop Stephen Platten and his wife

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. Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 2 – Bishop Stephen Platten”

Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 1 – Kyrion

Malkhaz as Gandalf

Sometime after the New Year my Orthodox friend Archimandrite Kyrion and I went for drinks in the Eagle and Child pub, familiarly known in the Oxford community as The Bird and Baby. This is my favourite pub. I like it for various reasons. This is a pub which used to be frequented by the members of the Inklings, an informal literary discussion group associated with the University of Oxford: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Austin Farrer, Tolkien’s son Christopher, Lewis’ elder brother Warren, and others. They went there to drink a pint of beer and discuss literature. In those days pubs did not offer food, just drinks. I also like it because they have good food and the people there are extremely kind.

“I am buying the drinks,” declared Kyrion as we entered the pub and greeted the pub manager, a lovely young lady.  I did not argue with him because there was no point. Once he has made a decision you cannot stop him.

“I am having a pint of beer. What do you like to drink?”, asked Kyrion.

“Well, perhaps a nice cup of tea…”, I mumbled.

“With rum, as usual, I suppose?” Kyrion looked at me with a cheeky smile on his face.

“Yes, with rum it is,” I said and wanted to add “Earl Grey tea, please,” but  Kyrion by that time had  vanished into the narrow passages of the pub. He came back in a few minutes with a pint of beer and a cup of tea with rum in it. We happily settled in the back room of the pub, sipped our drinks and chatted about the political situation in Georgia and the state of religious affairs in Georgia and Ukraine.

“What are your plans for January?” asked Kyrion suddenly.

“Well, I will have my ‘Day of Judgment’, the viva first. Then I would like to go to Georgia for a short visit, if I can manage it.” Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – Sleepless in Georgia – 1 – Kyrion”

Malkhaz Songulashvili – The last two days of the year 2012 – 2

Malkhaz & Ala Songulashvili
Ala & Malkhaz Songulashvili

Day two: I am woken up in the morning by an unusual tapping on the skylight    of my bedroom, which is located right over my bed. When there is clear sky I talk to the stars and the moon before going to sleep (I should have told you that I live in the attic flat of a very old house in Oxford city centre, next to the oldest building in the city – the 10th-century Saxon Tower. The tower still has an old door behind which Archbishop Cranmer was locked before he was burnt at the stake just 30 metres from our place).  It is still dark. No, it is not raining, it’s hailing, for a change. I get out of my bed and leave the flat as silently as possible. I get dressed on my way to the ground floor. I open the entrance door, but hesitate to go any further: it hails so hard that I have to stop. I keep the door open and enjoy the sight of hail falling.  Sometime later the rain overtakes the hail and I feel now I can walk. I walk in the dimly-lit old streets of the city under heavy rain but I do not mind; as I told you, I like rain. My umbrella does not necessarily keep me dry, nor do my sandals. Within an hour I am almost completely soaked. I hear bells tolling from the Saxon Tower and I go back to Cornmarket Street. I am at St. Michael’s at the North Gate for the 8 o’clock eucharist. There are only three of us in the church – the priest, Gregory Platten, a sidesman and me.  I like St Michael’s church and always attend the 8 o’clock eucharist. It’s a very prayerful place with eye-catching altar frontals and a lovely blue carpet in the sanctuary, woven somewhere in Turkey. Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – The last two days of the year 2012 – 2”

Malkhaz Songulashvili – The last two days of the year 2012 -1

Dr Taj Hargey & Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili

Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia Malkhaz Songulashvili (right), and Dr Taj Hargey, Imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, (left) pictured at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Oxfordshire, December 20th 2012. Tomorrow Archbishop Songulashvili will give a Friday prayer sermon at Imam Hargey’s mosque, the first time that a non-Muslim has delivered the Friday sermon in a mosque. (Credit: Susannah Ireland / The Independent)

* * *

Day One: it is raining cats and dogs.  Ala and I have a houseguest, Kyrion, a fellow Georgian from Tbilisi, where he served Patriarch Ilia II as a hypo-deacon for more than 20 years. Now he is an Archimandrite of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate.  He is in his early forties. He is a very  amusing and kind character. He is a monk, which means being totally withdrawn from worldly pleasures. Yet his main hobby is shopping…. he dines on coffee, cigarettes and Black Label whisky. He has become part of our family. With him, and a Saudi friend of ours, we attended the other day a Christmas carol service at Christ Church Cathedral. We arrived late. Even though we had tickets, all the places were already taken. I looked around to find places for Ala, Kyrion and our Saudi friend. It was not easy. The service was about to start. With the help of sidesmen I managed to find three places but I could not find a place for myself. There were no more seats available.  I was about to give up when the chief verger appeared in front of me and whispered in my ear:

“The Dean wants you to process with the bishop and clergy, if you do not mind.”

Of course I did not. Now I could have a seat with the clergy! The service of Nine Lessons and Carols was absolutely beautiful. This year the choir sang rather unusual modern carols which added a touch of post-modernity to the service. After the service all four of us were invited to a reception by the Dean and his wife, who have recently visited Georgia and enjoyed the hospitality of a small Baptist Church in the city of Gori. Continue reading “Malkhaz Songulashvili – The last two days of the year 2012 -1”

Archbishop Malkhaz Giving the Friday Sermon (Khutbah) at the Mosque in Oxford

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A unique event took place on Friday 21 December at the Mosque in Oxford, where the Imam, Dr. Taj Hargey, invited my friend the Georgian (Baptist) Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili to present the Friday sermon (khutbah).

Here is the message I have received from the Archbishop:

Dear Friends,

You will be glad to know how did my khutba go at the MECO Mosque in Oxford. Many thanks to all of you for your support. Your prayers, your encouragement and support has meant a lot to me.

The service was an unforgettable experience. I had to make considerable preparations: lerned Arabic alphabet, I studied and memorized all the Friday prayers in Arabic, familiarized myself with some basic principles of Muslim liturgy and theology. In other words the preparation for the khutbah was a fascinating experience. Continue reading “Archbishop Malkhaz Giving the Friday Sermon (Khutbah) at the Mosque in Oxford”

Islam and Human Rights – The European Paradigm

In the context of the Islamophobia that dominates Christian cirlces in Europe and the US, the idea of moderate Islam seems to be an oxymoron. But it does not have to be so, as the conference presenred in this poster tries to prove.

Here is what my friend the Georgian BaptistArchbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili writes about it: Continue reading “Islam and Human Rights – The European Paradigm”

Archbishop Malkhaz – In Defence of Pussy Riot

Dear Friends,

Three Russian girls, members of punk band Pussy Riot have now been jailed for two years after staging an anti-Putin and anti-Moscow Patriarchate  protest in a Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The girls offered a prophetic voice in the situation where the state is using the church for its political goals and the church is seeking the the symphony with state hoping to grab more power and wealth. Continue reading “Archbishop Malkhaz – In Defence of Pussy Riot”

One Day in the Life of A Wandering Georgian


Bishop Rusudan and Archbishop Malkhaz

I have just received the following message from my good friend Georgian Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, who is now in Oxford, finishing writing his PhD.

* * *

Dear Friends,

Bishop Rusudan, our first woman Bishop, is having her birthday very
soon. I am not going to tell you her age. I can only give you a clue:
she is over the age of crucifixion (33).
I have written a little story, a true one, to mark this occasion. I
hope you will like it.
Yours,

+Malkhaz


Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili
Regent’s Park College
Pusey Street
Oxford OX1 2LB Continue reading “One Day in the Life of A Wandering Georgian”

Georgian Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili Awarded by Ukrainean Orthodox Patriarch


Awarding Ceremony picture (Archbishop Malkhaz, first on the left)

My very good friend Georgian Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, Primate of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Georgia has been awarded the Order of Christ the Saviour by Patriarch Philaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv, ”for strengthening friendly relations between Christian churches and for his support to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” In the same ceremony awards were given to three Anglican clerics. Continue reading “Georgian Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili Awarded by Ukrainean Orthodox Patriarch”

Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili – A Holy Grail of Peace Discovered

It was the end of September when I was taken ill in the early morning. I felt very unusual pain in abdomen. I thought I was clever to apply a hot bottle on the spot where it was hurting most. It was the silliest thing I could possibly do: the pain immediately started excruciating and, as we say it in Georgia, it made me walk on the walls. By the time I went to see the doctor the pain slightly lessened. The doctor carefully examined my abdomen and then told to get dressed .

Shall I go home now and take some medicine?” I asked him.

I am afraid you are not going home, you are going to the emergency unit of the JR Hospital!” was his answer. I was rushed to the hospital and immediately operated. Continue reading “Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili – A Holy Grail of Peace Discovered”

Stalin’s statue removed from Gori, Georgia


Stalin’s staue in Gori, Georgia

Some years ago, when I have visited the city of Gori in Georgia, with my friend Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Georgia, he took me to browse through the memorial dedicated to Stalin in his hometown.

Going towards the museum, I was shocked to see a tall statue of Stalin still standing in front of Gori municipality over fifteen years after the fall of communism in Georgia.  Until last night.

Continue reading “Stalin’s statue removed from Gori, Georgia”

Autoritatea slujitorului

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Invitaţia la nunta Arh. Malkhaz

Cu catva timp in urma am petrecut cateva zile in compania arhiepiscopului Malkhaz, liderul baptistilor din Georgia. Pentru a avea suficient ragaz sa povestim, episcopul m-a invitat sa-l insotesc in plimbarea lui de fiecare sambata pe coclaurile Georgiei. Acesta este sigura perioada a saptamanii in care Malkhaz are vreme sa povesteasca pe indelete cu cei care il cauta; este, trebuie sa recunoasteti, un context ideal pentru ucenicia peripatetica. Continue reading “Autoritatea slujitorului”

Interviu al Arhiepiscopului Malkhaz despre situatia din Georgia

Astazi, la ora 4pm Eastern Time (GMT -4), 10pm ora României, va si transmis la posturile publice de radio din Statele Unite un interviu despre situaţia din Georgia, cu Arhiepiscopul baptist Malkhaz Songulashvili. Interviul poate fi ascultat online, după ora 10pm ora României, la adresa de AICI sau ca podcast, AICI. Interviul va fi transmis în cadrul emisiunii lui Dick Gordon intitulată “The Story”.

Continue reading “Interviu al Arhiepiscopului Malkhaz despre situatia din Georgia”