How could I not blog about this article about the hybrid mixing of Evangelical Baptists and Georgian Orthodox? Not only does the article describe two traditions that are very familiar to me for very different reasons (I grew up in an evangelical, anabaptist tradition and now study Byzantine art which is deeply saturated with Orthodox theology), it was also written by a journalist named Yoder, my maiden name. Sheesh—I got the message and read the article!
The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, or EBCG, is a new church/denomination established by Baptists for Georgians. This is a contextual model of church that is based on rigorous interpretation of its context. Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the EBCG, claims his church integrates Protestant and Orthodox traditions; it is “Baptist in theology while both Georgian and Orthodox in culture.” And, just to confuse matters, they call their structure an Episcopal Baptist Church, with bishops heading the hierarchy.
It’s not surprising to me that Songulashvili recently completed a doctorate at England’s Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. This is the kind of missional work that leaders in the west, especially in the Anglican church, are trying to develop. It takes a lot of skill and intelligence to become this kind of leader. But it also takes a lot of humility, self-control, and hard work.
In 2010, an American pastor reported that on any given Sunday in Peace Cathedral, where Songulashvili serves, “the sanctuary [is] overflowing, with younger people crowding at the doorways to participate in the services.” A bearded, wine-drinking, highly educated Baptist hierarch in flowing robes and sandals is apparently more attractive to Georgian youth than a podium-pounding Eastern European preacher in an ill-fitting suit.
The Orthodox elements involve a sensually rich liturgical expression with icons (yea!) and incense, processions, pilgrimages, and a monastic order. The strong Georgian cultural perspective is strong, too, but they are not a national church in the way that the Georgian Orthodox church is.
The Protestant elements include the having a female bishop (Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze) and liturgical dance, which is funny because I know a good many Anglicans who would rather not accept these as markers of protestantism. Gotsiridze is a new hero of mine!
This approach to Christianity is appealing in its simplicity: show love and friendliness to everyone, and let God do the rest. It is also admirable in its willingness to reach out and take risks, even in volatile places. And confounding in Songulashvili’s stance of radical forgiveness of nationalists who oppose his organization.
But it leaves me wondering about the complicated bits like, what is their sacramental theology? And how does this church fit with other denominations and traditions? Songulashvili’s fraught relationships with pro-Russian groups emphasize how messy the political side of church denominational divides can be. I’m pleased to see religious groups growing in Georgia mostly because these groups help people stay connected with their heritage and family. And, I’m fundamentally a protestant in the way I regard institutions and hierarchies with suspicion—what institution doesn’t need a little reformation? I’m not just talking about the way the EBCG rubs up against the Orthodox and Baptist groups in Georgia and Eastern Europe, but also about the way Baptists and other denominations in the west could use a wake-up call.