The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Orthodox Church of Georgia

Georgia, which is centered in the Caucasus mountains at the eastern end of the Black Sea, has a civilization that reaches back to ancient times. Due in large part to the missionary activity of St. Nino, a woman from a prominent Cappadocian family, the kingdom of Kartli (in eastern Georgia, also known as Iberia) adopted the Christian faith as its state religion, according to received tradition, in 337. Western Georgia, then a part of the Roman Empire, became Christian through a gradual process that was virtually complete by the 5th century.

The Jerusalem liturgy of St. James was celebrated in Kartli, at first in Greek, but in Georgian by the 6th century. The Byzantine liturgy was always used in West Georgia, changing from Greek to Georgian in the 8th or 9th century. East Georgia adopted the Byzantine liturgy soon after East and West Georgia were combined into a single kingdom and Catholicosate in 1008.

The church in Kartli was at first dependent on the Patriarchate of Antioch, but it was established as an independent church by King Vakhtang Gorgaslan in 467. The Georgian Church’s reception of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and its Christological definition was delayed in part by its close relations with the Armenian Church, and by the debate over the council within the Byzantine Empire. By the end of the 6th century the Georgians had begun to side with the Church of Constantinople, and to support the decrees of Chalcedon. The Georgians and Armenians split definitively at the Third Council of Dvin in 607. This council elected Armenian Catholicos Abraham, who advocated the condemnation of Chalcedon and the Georgians who had come to support it.

Monasticism began to flourish in Georgia in the 6th century and reached its zenith in the 10th to 12th centuries. The monasteries became important centers of missionary and cultural activity. Georgians founded the Iviron monastery in the late 10th century on Mount Athos, where many important religious works were translated from Greek into Georgian. There were also contacts with monasteries in Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.

From the 11th to the 13th centuries, Georgia underwent a golden age during which a rich Christian literature was developed in the Georgian language. But this came to an end when the country was devastated by the invasions of Genghis Khan in the 13th century and Tamerlane in the 15th century. In the period from 1500 to 1800 Georgia underwent a cultural renaissance, largely because the rival Ottomans and Persians kept each other from gaining full control over the country. New contacts were developed with the West and Russia.

In 1801 Russia annexed a portion of Georgia, and would control the entire country within a decade. After the Patriarch died in 1811, the Russians abolished the Patriarchate. The Georgian church was then administered from St. Petersburg by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church through a special exarch. The 30 dioceses of the church were reduced to five, and the Georgian language was suppressed in the seminaries and in the liturgy, being replaced by Russian or Slavonic.

After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on March 1, 1917, the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in the non-Russian areas of the empire was seriously undermined. On March 12, 1917, an assembly of Georgian bishops, clergy and laity declared the re-establishment of autocephaly. The following September a council of the Georgian Orthodox Church elected a new Catholicos-Patriarch. These actions were not accepted by the Russian Orthodox Church. After the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, Georgia briefly regained its independence, from May 1918 to February 1921, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. But the Georgian church retained its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate in spite of intense persecution by the Soviets. The Moscow Patriarchate formally granted autocephaly to the Georgian church in 1943.

The situation of this church under Soviet rule was similar to that of the Russian Orthodox Church: while in 1917 there were 2,455 churches open in Georgia, only 80 were functioning by the mid-1980s, along with four or five monasteries and a seminary. The Georgian church was compelled to follow the Moscow Patriarchate in its ecumenical and international policies.

The reform policies of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and the strong leadership of Catholicos Ilia II opened a new era in the life of the church of Georgia. Many churches were re-opened, and on October 1, 1988, a Georgian Orthodox Theological Academy was formally inaugurated in Tbilisi, the capital, with 150 students studying in sections dealing with theology, Christian anthropology and Christian art. There is now a second theological academy in Gelati and six seminaries around the country, as well as an institute for the formation of laypeople. Each diocese has set up a center for the training of catechists and missionaries to work for the re-evangelization of the nation.

On March 4, 1990, the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephalous status to the church of Georgia and confirmed its patriarchal rank. The status of the Georgian church had been in dispute between Moscow and Constantinople for some time: the Ecumenical Patriarchate did not recognize Moscow’s authority to grant autocephaly in 1943 and had continued to consider it an autonomous church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision regularized the position of the Georgian church throughout the Orthodox world.

The process of renewal intensified after Georgia became an independent nation in 1991. Vocations to the priesthood were ample, a renewal of monastic life was beginning, and many new churches were opened. The baptism of the Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze, into the Georgian Orthodox Church in late 1992 symbolized the augmented role that the church had begun to play in the newly independent republic. In 1994 the Orthodox Church and the Georgian government reached an agreement to require the teaching of religion in public schools using a program elaborated in conjunction with the church. A large new cathedral dedicated to the Holy Trinity was built in Tbilisi with government assistance. The cornerstone was laid by Patriarch Ilia in March 1996, and the church was dedicated in November 2004.

A council of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which gathered together the entire hierarchy along with clerical and lay delegates, met in September 1995. It made several decisions to foster a pastoral and spiritual renewal of the church. It also requested a clarification of the position of the Georgian Church in the dyptics and proceeded to the canonization of five new saints.

By 1997 anti-ecumenical attitudes had gained much ground in Georgia, and serious divisions began to appear over the participation of the church in the ecumenical movement. In an open letter published on May 17, 1997, the abbots of five monasteries threatened to break communion with Patriarch Ilia, who had served as one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches from 1979 to 1983, because of his ecumenical activities. Tensions were running very high, and in order to avoid a possible schism, the Holy Synod voted on May 20, 1997, to withdraw from both the WCC and the European Council of Churches. This did not entirely resolve the situation, however, and some of the leaders of the opposition, who had links either to Old Calendarist groups in Greece or Metropolitan Ephraim in Boston, called upon the church to break communion with those Orthodox churches that continued to participate in ecumenical organizations. There was a significant political factor in this dispute: Patriarch Ilia had forged a close alliance with President Shevardnadze’s government, while the anti-ecumenical group was linked to supporters of ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

In spite of the fact that ecumenism is a very sensitive topic in the Georgian Church, Pope John Paul II was able to visit the country on November 8 and 9, 1999, on his way back to Rome from India. The Pope meet with President Shevardnadze, was received by Patriarch Ilia and the Orthodox Holy Synod, addressed a group of cultural figures, and celebrated Mass in a sports stadium in Tbilisi. Nevertheless, in September 2003 a proposed agreement between the Georgian government and the Vatican regulating the status of the Catholic Church in the country failed at the last moment, due in part to the strong opposition of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

On October 14, 2002 the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the government signed a concordat that was, in part, a working out of the privileged status of the Orthodox Church as noted in Article Nine of Georgia’s Constitution. Orthodoxy’s historical role in the shaping of the nation was consolidated in such areas as the rights of the clergy and of the church in relation to the government and in society.

A rebellion broke out against President Shervardnadze in November 2003 in the wake of parliamentary elections that were widely seen as corrupt. The process leading to Shervardnadze’s resignation and the installation of a new more pro-western government in Georgia took place without violence due in large part to the intervention Patriarch Ilia, who made a strong appeal against the use of arms. The church now faces a new challenge to integrate itself into the more westernized society promoted by President Saakashvili.

Out of a total population of 4,400,000, most ethnic Georgians (80% of the population) self-identify as Georgian Orthodox. In 2006 the Georgian Orthodox Church reported having 30 dioceses, 1004 parish priests, and 65 monasteries.

Location: Georgia
Head: Catholicos Ilia II (born 1932, elected 1977)
Title: Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia
Residence: Tbilisi, Georgia
Membership: 3,500,000

Last Modified: 19 June 2007

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