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Silence of the lambs

Malkhaz Songulashvili, Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church

Martin Luther, a professor of theology, and simultaneously both a priest and a monk, had nailed a piece of paper to the door of the parish church of the German town of Wittenberg, on which 95 theses were written.

Luther would call on the Church to begin an academic discussion regarding its corruptive vices.

The Church looked down on him for this and tried to silence the professor. For Luther however, raising his voice was already a matter of conscientiousness. “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen!” - His words became a symbol of the Church's Reformation Movement. In fact, the anniversary of the Reformation is being observed this year. For western Christians, 2017 is a year to examine the successes and the failures of the Reformation, to further deepen ecumenical dialogue, and to think about the future.

‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est’ or “The Church must constantly be in the process of reformation” – it is this theological conception that must be considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the Reformation. It was first used in 1947 by Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century. According to this concept, the Church must always stay self-critical in order to preserve the purity of its teachings and its religious practices.

Due to a series of historical-political events, the Eastern Orthodox Church knows little about self-criticism. It stands more in a position of self-defense and this frequently pushes it towards exclusionary policies. Last summer, representatives of the Orthodox Church gathered together for the first time after many centuries on the island of Crete to discuss the difficulties that have arisen over the past centuries. Obviously, all of its many issues were not resolved, yet it is good that a vocal discussion had begun.

In the Georgian Orthodox Church a discussion regarding reforms was first initiated in 1917 – once it was freed from the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and its autocephaly was restored. But then they were no longer able to implement the reforms – after the establishment of the Soviet regime, self-preservation became its primary concern.

However, the arrival of Ilia II provided an opportunity for reformation. I remember the day of Ilia II's enthronement well – December 25, 1977. My father, who was a clergy member in the Tbilisi Baptist Church, was unable to go to the enthronement because he had to serve the Christmas liturgy at our church. Thus a VIP invitation found itself in my hands. The exhilaration that held sway at Svetitskhoveli Church that day was unforgettable. Everyone was expecting a renewal of the Church. The renewal really began. The new helmsman of the Church got down to business with a youthful vigor. At that time he was 44-years-old. He followed the very first wave: renewed relationships between the Church and society, the translation of the Bible into modern Georgian, experimentation in the discipline of sacred art... there were so many other things as well.

Yet after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church chose the path of religious nationalism and isolationism as well – something which was politically justified, but not religiously justified. The discourse of the Church and nationalism became so enmeshed in one another that it became difficult to tell them apart. The Church also distanced itself from the global Christian organizations through which it had created its reputation – it left the World Council of Churches and abandoned the Conference of European Churches at a time when our Church needed international support most.

The Church became isolated and acquired tribalistic characteristics. It transformed into a state within the state. Criticizing the Church from inside or from outside was taboo. The Church received and took to playing the chief political role in the country. Politicians first bestowed money and authority on the Church, and then they turned a blind eye to what the Church was doing.

Thus the Church found itself in a crisis which it can no longer pass without consequences and clearly must not pass.

From the start, politicians at the highest echelons began discussions regarding the “Cyanide Business”. The country's premier, vice-premier, ministers, and others made pathetic statements about how they had steered the country away from an enormous disaster. After it turned out that there hadn't been a catastrophe, the government was thwarted, but it didn't give up. Here, in Georgia, a confession of an error is a sign of weakness. The affair went to such lengths that the government began to voluntarily pull down the boundaries between Church and State – the chief prosecutor of Georgia and other high level officials began running to the Patriarchate with investigative documents!

Those believers who had been taught to ascribe an equivalency of the idea of God to the idea of the institution, found themselves to be in the most dire straits. Recent development of events digs away at their faith - it was instilled into these people a good while ago that the institute and its representatives are just as perfect as the Lord himself.

Those who publicly discuss the "Cyanide Business" frequently use the word “shock”. Some prefer the people to remain completely in the dark and understand nothing. Yet, the bitterest truth is better than the most beautiful lie. A discourse about how the extant situation within the Church contained some danger for the Church itself first began wenty years ago. Archpriest Basil Kobakhidze then raised his voice, yet neither the clergy nor the laity paid heed to him. As a sign of protest, the archpriest first doffed his anaphora in public, then he went into exile from the homeland. Why his speeches did not shock us at that time? All the things that we are now beating ourselves over were expressed by him years before.

Neither was a speech by young seminarians in 2003 shocking for our society – due to love for the Church, they had spoken precisely about the things in public that the Church dearly needs to resolve to this day.

Neither was what I saw on May 17, 2013, shocking, when angry preachers of the ‘religion of love’ chased after young people to beat them with a stool. We took our eyes off this too. We were unable to dare pose one simple question: “Would Christ have acted in this way on May 17 in our place?” Neither was it shocking when the minaret was chopped-off the mosque in the village of Chela at the urging of the Church, and through this, the religious feelings of Georgian Muslims were insulted. Neither is it cause for anger when Georgian Catholics, Muslims, and Armenians request the return of confiscated places of prayer and they only receive cynical responses from representatives of the Orthodox Church.

Those less interested in the institution and more interested in God can already see that the Church has been in dire need of reform for quite some time now. Accordingly, the events that are taking place now are not shocking to them, since there is the underlying logic to these events. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There is an old story having analogies encountered in various religions and cultural traditions: A group of hooligans go to test a wise village elder. One boy catches a sparrow, traps it between his hands, and tells the old man:

“Well, if you're truly wise, what am I holding?”

The old man lapses into thought and responds to him:

“You're holding a sparrow.”

“Yes, sir, you figured it out, but can you also tell me if it is dead or alive?”

If the old man said that the sparrow was alive, the boy would squash it in his hands and show him that the bird was dead. If the old man said it was dead, the boy would throw it up in the air and it would fly off. The old man would be proven wrong in both the first and second case. Thus he would answer likewise:

“It depends on you whether the sparrow is dead or alive – you can kill it, and you can also let it live.”

Same goes here. Whether the Georgian Orthodox Church emerges from this crisis victorious or defeated is wholly dependent on the clergy and the people. Yet, that which we think is victory, might possibly be a defeat in real life from a religious perspective and vice-versa.

It will be a true victory if the Church begins a critical analysis of its own situation and begins thinking about reformation. Not only the Church, but the entire confessional family needs it like the air we breathe.

‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est - It won't be bad for this to be the reaction to the current situation.


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