June 14, 2008
In the morning of Saturday, June 14, a caravan of cars, minibuses, and buses started for Mount Didgori to be present at probably the most remarkable event of EBC Georgia in the year 2008, the wedding of Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili with Ala. More than 600 came from all over Georgia to be witnesses of a moving ceremony celebrated by the Honourable Bishop Stephen Platten of Wakefield/England together with representatives from different churches and from several countries. The Rev. Dr. Karl Heinz Walter, former General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation, gave the marriage sermon
Mount Didgori, 1647 m, is situated some 40 km west of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi in the eastern part of the Trialeti Range, which is part of the Lesser Caucasus. It was a site of the celebrated victory won by the Georgian king David IV over the Seljuk armies on August 12, 1121. The battlefield extends for several kilometres and is covered by abundant sub-alpine meadows. Early in the 1990s, an impressive monument was erected at the site of the battle, consisting of dozens of massive swords pushed into the ground and posing as crosses, and colossal sculptures of dismembered bodies of warriors scattered in the meadows.
More than 60 foreign guests came from 14 different countries. It was a great joy for Malkhaz and Ala and for the Baptists in Georgia that the new Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Dr. Neville Callam came for these special days. Beside these guests personal greetings were expressed by His Excellency the Ambassador of Great Britain in Georgia and by representatives of the Muslim community.
In good Georgian tradition the wedding ceremony was followed by a traditional meal which the members of the churches provided. Music, dancing and a great time of fellowship will remain in the memories of all who were present before the caravan made his way from the top of Mount Didgori back to Tbilisi.
Several of the foreign guests have visited different places in Georgia and report about their visits.
Here are their reports and comments.
Memories of Friday - the visit to the orphanage, such a warm welcome and a wonderful feast, but they had so little and so much needs to be done to the building. I came away with a burning desire to do something to help, but I'm not sure what. The Choral Evensong in the cathedral was such a surprise, and beautifully sung, and I was very honoured to be asked to the reception at the British Embassy afterwards.
Memories of Saturday - I shall never forget the journey there: the wonderful scenery, the bumpy ride, and having to push our minibus out of the mud. The setting for the wedding was incredible and the service was beautifully put together, but I felt very sorry for Malkhaz and Ala. They both looked absolutely exhausted by the end of it. The mix of Anglican and Orthodox ceremonial was marvellous, and so many people were involved in the service. And then the feast afterwards: talk about the Feeding of the Five Thousand! I am full of admiration for those who cooked for us high up in the mountains, with no gas or water laid on.
Memories of Sunday - the Spirit of Pentecost was truly present in the cathedral, symbolised by the lovely dancers and the exciting music. It was a privilege to be at the Ordination of five priests and the Consecration of three bishops, and it is a service I shall always remember. Then another big reception followed afterwards and the chance to meet new friends as we sat eating on the steps of the Beteli Centre. All through the weekend it was a delight to meet so many supporters of the EBG and to share our stories, and I felt very privileged to be present.
Memories of Monday - the coach excursion to Gori and the chance to visit the Stalin Museum, but also more friendships made as we travelled. And then a lecture on Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" at the Tbilisi University, the last thing I would have expected in Georgia! I was glad to escape from the crowds for a while with Benjamin and have the chance to meet his wife, his mother-in-law, and his little boy Nicolas. It was a reminder that normal life was going on while we were being whisked round on excursions by coach and minibus. Simon is to be congratulated on his entire wonderful organisation, and the final dinner (for me) on Monday evening was another super occasion.
We did so much, saw so many places, met so many people, ate, and drank so much...... The hospitality was unbelievable, and the whole weekend unforgettable.
Ann Leigh, TSSF
(Franciscan friend of Malkhaz from the UK)
In all my trips to Georgia and all my time there I had never been to a wedding. I had been only to funerals. But what a wedding! A true mountain-top experience. It was a very ceremonious and serious event, but it was also full of joy and celebration. It was good to see a wedding ceremony that was impregnated with traditional culture and symbolism. I was also very happy to see such a wide range of leaders of the faith present at the ceremony: Eastern Orthodox Christians, Baptists, Catholics, Anglicans, Armenian Apostolic, Muslims, and others which I may not have been aware of. The feast was also am impressive event. The traditional dancing and music was exceptional and very appropriate to the event. I partook of the food and drink and ventured to do a bit of dancing. It was a beautiful experience. It was a wonderful encounter of peoples from different cultures and religions
in the humble auspices of Georgian hospitality and merriment. Possibly a taste of the Kingdom."
Many Georgians call me "Mama Petre" - "Father Peder."
A once in a life-time experience, fit for a king and for Universal Pictures, Hollywood, but nothing for narrow-minded non-conformists. The contested leader of a small Baptist Union shows the Christian world that peace is possible - when mutual respect and co-operation are practised in inter-church and interfaith relations, without losing neither your own identity nor the missionary zeal. Authentic Christianity and powerful Christian witness to an unchurched society.
Hilde Sayers, former president of the European Baptist Women's Union
The five days my sons and I had in the Republic of Georgia were filled with good food, beautiful weather, wonderful friends, and above all a lovely wedding. May the God of Peace bring many years of joy and meaningfulness to Malkhaz and Ala.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia
'As we were making the arduous journey by minibus over the hills to the place of the wedding, we wondered why it was necessary to travel so far, to such a remote place. When we arrived, we saw the reason. Not only was the amphitheatre physically ideal for an event in which so many needed to take part, it was also spiritually exactly the right place, belonging as it does to the whole Georgian nation, not just to one of the churches within that nation.
'The ordination of deacons and consecration of bishops the following day, Pentecost, was a wholly fitting climax to the whole weekend. Malkhaz and Ala, as ministers of the Church, saw that Church strengthened before their eyes, not only by their own witness to the loving providence of God in their wedding, but by the increase of the ministry for the spread of the Gospel for which the whole Church of God stands.
'Our time in Georgia was memorable from beginning to end, an example and inspiration to us all.'
The Revd Dr Stephen Pix, Anglican Priest, former City Rector of Oxford, now retired and licensed to officiate within the Diocese of Oxford, and Mrs Barbara Pix, member of the Parochial Church Council and Choir of St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire.
>> After a week of blustery, windy, chilly weather, wedding day dawned sunny and clear. You could hear the sigh of relief all over Tbilisi. It confirmed our suspicions that Bishop (actually, Archbishop) Malkhaz has a direct line to the highest authority. And a good thing since men had been hauling truck loads of tables, portable toilets, flags, icons, sound equipment, and generators and did I mention food, water, and wine up the torturous mountain road to Didgori for days.
We were told to expect a van to pick us up at the hotel at 9:00 Saturday. True to custom, it arrived at 10:00 and by 11:00 actually began the two and a half hour trek to the mountain top. For a week, guests had been arriving from all over the world and we looked like the mixed bag of cultures and styles we were. Stephen (“with a ‘ph’”) from Oxford wore his Abe Lincoln top hat and morning coat. Alexander of Norway looked elegant in a suit, silk tie and boiled wool shepherd’s cap he’d bought on an ancient monastery tour earlier in the week. Some of the women were in hats and heels. Others dressed less formally for the long bumpy road and cross country hiking to the cement amphitheatre built at the site of a 12c battle to liberate Georgia. Peter and I belonged to the less formal group.
Some Georgian men wore traditional garb - knee length coats, riding pants, and boots, the ensemble accented by knives, swords, and cartridge belts. Girls and young women wore flowing white gowns with garlands of daisies in their hair. Actually, daisy garlands decked all manner of heads, including Peter’s at one point.
While we waited in the warm sun and enjoyed the mountain views, the wedding party assembled at the top of a very high hill behind us where the monument to the battle perches. Peter and I were settled comfortably on the second row when I heard my name announced and discovered that the wedding party included me! I hustled up the 4,000 (minimum) steps to the top just as the couple, clergy, best men, attendants and children were about to start the processional back down, to further discover that I was listed in the order of worship in the laying on of hands and blessing section!! Flexibility is an invaluable asset in Georgia.
All clergy and dignitaries, and there were dozens, were honoured by a part in the service which was conducted by the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield. The most challenging aspect of the service was standing for two hours squinting into the sun with the occasional diversion of a walk to a microphone to say one’s part and, best of all, the processional around the altar three times behind the bride, groom, and bishop.
The service would not normally last quite so long except that we were combining traditions of “the Church in West and in East” and two languages - English and Georgian, and including all those clergy persons and dignitaries. After the procession, the tender declarations of these long time friends set the tone: “Malkhaz, is it your will to take your friend Ala as your wife?” He answered, gently, “Yes it is,” in English and in Georgian, and Ala followed in like manner. Then there was the censing of the icons, ringing of the bell, singing, scripture reading, praying, blessing, preaching, vows, giving of rings, and sharing of cup “as a sign that from this day forward you will have everything in common,”
Much of it was new and wonderful to behold but my favourite moment was the crowning. The crowns symbolize the joining together of husband and wife “in oneness of mind; crown[ed] with wedlock into one flesh....” Those young women in flowing white gowns also happened to be the church’s liturgical dance group. They presented the Bishop with heavy brass crowns which he blessed and placed on Malkhaz and Ala intoning, “O Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honour,” ...and (much) more.
When it was all over, three white doves were released, children waved sparklers, daisies were tossed in the air, bells rang, the crowd applauded and we trooped across the field to another Georgian feast, toasts, music and dancing. After a service like that, one must feel truly and completely married. We left as the sun was getting low over the Caucasus Mountains, tired, sunburned, well fed, happy.
My blessing for Malkhaz and Ala upon the occasion of the beginning of
May your love, which has gathered all these people from all over the world at this mountain on this day, grow even deeper and fuller. May our gift to you be our sharing with others the blessing of today. May peace grow from our love for you wherever we may go.
Heather Entrekin, Senior Pastor at Prairie Baptist Church, Kansas City, USA
An Unorthodox Wedding
By Daryl Ann Hardman
Georgia is known for her wine, her dancers, and her unpredictable and barely democratic political processes and of course, for her fierce, black haired horsemen. She has also, sadly, become associated in modern times with civil wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with the dirty business of hosting an international oil pipeline and with refugees coming through the mountain passes from Chechnya. The two overriding factors that really define this small Caucasian country are her geographical location and mountainous topography.
Even in the capital, Tbilisi, the mountains are never far away, they ring the city and were used to effect by the Soviets who set monuments on them such as the silver painted Kartlis Deda (Mother of Georgia), a sort of modest Statue of Liberty, and the copper plated Lady of Victory atop a long flight of steps leading up from the former Victory Park (now Vake Park) on the city’s western side. Drive in any direction from Tbilisi and you will drive through or past mountains. Many of Georgia’s best ancient churches, often built as fortified monasteries, are perched on crags, cliffs, mountain, and hilltops. Having survived the Soviet Union’s anti-religious excesses in rather better condition than their Russian counterparts, sadly now they are being allowed to slowly descend into ruin for lack of funding in an economy that is just about managing to keep the majority of its people going at subsistence level. The capital is in a better position, although it is claimed to suffer over 50% unemployment. No doubt the grey economy does not feature in these statistics as out and out poverty and beggars on the streets are few. The elegant timber framed, balconied, warren like houses and apartments of old Tiflis are crumbling at an alarming rate, being vacated and boarded up, in some cases for so long that they fall down. Even the inhabited buildings in the old town exhibit alarming cracks the width of a man’s hand and subsidence that would make anyone think twice about entering their skewed doors, often permanently open between doors jambs too lop sided to enable them to close. There are one or two oases of hope: several old Tiflis streets have been restored to structural and repainted glory and reopened as pedestrian precincts lined with western style coffee houses and restaurants where tourists mix with the small caste of nouveaux rich Georgians, drinking cappuccinos and blending nouvelle cuisine with local spicy specialities.
Georgia’s history has been defined by her location. Together with her neighbour Armenia they represent the last outpost of Christianity in that part of the world where Islam and Christianity meet, perhaps seen by her Islamic neighbours in Chechnya, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey as an unwelcome Christian intrusion. Her relations with external neighbours have never been easy. Two hours’ drive from Tbilisi, in the mountains, is a huge concrete cross on a small peak, surrounded by concrete representations of swords thrust into the hillside. This is the site of a major battle between Georgians and Ottoman Turks, a resounding victory for little Georgia against its huge and powerful expansionist neighbour. To the north, Georgia’s other large and equally acquisitive neighbour has also been a major cause of difficulties; not until 1991 did Georgia manage to gain her freedom, along with the 13 other minor republics, from the Moscow-centric Soviet Union. Yet the irony of the situation was that the Soviet Union’s most despotic and feared leader, the man of steel Stalin himself, was Georgian born and educated. Joseph Djugashvili remained dedicated to his country throughout his long Moscow reign of terror, yet did not spare his compatriots some of his worse excesses. Monuments to him still stand in the centre of Gori, his hometown. The palatial Italianate museum built in his memory after his death is still open and guides give airbrushed commentaries of his life and work that are reflected in the airbrushed photographs on the museum walls revealing to the observant how one by one his colleagues disappeared throughout his career. In a small country it seems they can’t afford to ignore their most infamous son.
No doubt most Georgians, if asked what religion they were, would answer “Orthodox”. Although their attendance at church services might be rare, their national church occupies an important place in their sense of what it is to be Georgian and they are ready to pay, defend, and shed tears of love for her. In practice, on the ground, liturgies are thinly attended except in the central churches of the main cities. The town of Kazbegi, with a population of 6,000, could only produce twenty souls at its one church for the regular Sunday morning service. Despite her turbulent history with empire-expanding neighbours, Georgia’s capital has throughout the ages been renowned for religious tolerance, the synagogue and mosque in central Tbilisi standing within a stone’s throw of the Georgian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches, yet apparently hardly a stone has ever been thrown. All are open to visits by tourists. There is no doubt about the statement made by the brash new Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity dominating central Tbilisi on its artificially concrete mountain. Its huge golden dome and acres of marbled interior were paid for with Georgian government money. The ancient Sioni cathedral, in the heart of old Tiflis, is now hushed and un-crowded – a much pleasanter place to be, yet even here the empire building Russians and Turks have left their mark. In the nineteenth century, its frescoes were deemed theologically unsound and painted over by Russian artist Grigory Gagarin. The stone iconostasis replaces a wooden one burned by the Turks in 1795. This cathedral used to be the heart of Tbilisi, with the patriarchate and the theological academy still nearby. The new heart of marble and gold has yet to warm up, trapped within its own grandiose pomposity.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is not known for its outreach or ecumenical credentials. In the 1990’s it allowed one of its priests to pillage and burn Baptist buildings and Baptist aid convoys to the refugees in the mountains. He was eventually defrocked, but even so the civil authorities continued to turn a blind eye until President Saakashvili came to power and had him tried and locked up for his crimes. In the heart of Orthodox Georgia, a new tree is sprouting; the Georgian Evangelical Baptist Church led by its charismatic and Orthodox looking Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. The Georgian Baptist Church is ploughing its own idiosyncratic furrow in a country that firmly believes in ceremony and robes for religious rites and which could not conceive of the Holy Spirit without clouds of incense for His presence. The Baptist Church provides all of this but it also provides tolerance and humanity and a simpler approach to one’s relationship with people and with God. The Baptists’ Peace Cathedral, a converted warehouse in a Tbilisi suburb, was full to bursting at Pentecost as three new bishops were consecrated, one of them female. Thus has one little slice of apparently “backward” Georgia beaten “modern” England to the emancipation of women. The man in the suit holding the microphone throughout the rite has his own tragic story to tell: a Georgian Orthodox priest, he was defrocked for his ecumenical views and now spends most of his time with the Baptist congregation where he is still called “Father” by some, while his heart bleeds for the life’s vocation he has lost. Generous and gentle, the Georgian Baptist Church has a true sense of community. Thanks to its archbishop’s globetrotting and wonderful way with people, it has obtained international funding from the US and Europe to build a modern outreach centre called Beteli (Bethel) where the elderly are cared for, medical services are provided, icons are painted and the Baptist school of Ilia the Prophet holds its classes. Several hours’ drive away in Zemo Bodbe is the children’s home that Malkhaz and his flock support, using international funds raised on the archbishop’s trips abroad. Poor though it may be itself, this Church manages to multiply its loaves and fishes in such a way that already it cares for large numbers of the needy.
The crowning glory of my visit was a wedding on a mountain. Seven hundred guests of all nationalities and religions travelled in minibuses, coaches, cars and vans to converge into a stone arena built in the foothills, a magnificent bucolic backdrop fit for the greatest of pastoral artists, to see the Baptist archbishop of Georgia wed his lady love. Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists side by side participating in an eclectic ceremony which owed everything to respect and mutual understanding for each others’ traditions and the minimal permissible to rule books and tut-tut ting over procedures. Thus does the light of tolerant old Tiflis burn in new Georgia, still sadly missing the approval of the country’s majority Orthodox Church, but showing the way that a small country sitting at a cultural and religious crossroads can survive. Perhaps here is a lesson for us all in this multi-faith world of ours?
The Georgian way of having weddings is like having a wedding with a taste of heaven. The couple who wears golden clothes walks down the path of life that is blessed and planned by God. We rejoice with you, Ala and Malkhaz! The best wish that was said the night before the wedding was that bishop Malkhaz has read Genesis in a new way and has begun to live by
it: The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." God stands by his word! It was an honour to be part of the festive dinner on the lawn where we drank, ate, sang, and danced for your marriage. Joy is from God! Be assured by the knowledge that our love and care for you is certain as long as we live.
Ingmar Kurg and Hannes Pikkel from Estonia.