It is the 25th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1917
It was a busy year: World War One, the Russian Revolution, and all of that. And so, if questions about the "autocephalous" nature of the Georgian church didn't make your class notes, I understand. But make no mistake, the Georgian church has a fascinating history. On this, the anniversary of a declaration of autocephaly in 1917 gives us a reason to look at these hybrid Euro-Asians you might not be able to find on a map.
First, sorry… "Autocephaly" means "their own head," at least for decision making. An Autocephalous church can still belong to a larger group such as Orthodox or Catholic, but the autocephalous church retains local autonomy.
And of course, the Georgia we are referring to is the land of the Kartvelians south of Russia, not the land of the Braves and my pal Zack. Also, older Georgians are referred to as Iberian. This is not the "Iberian" of the "Iberian Peninsula" of Spain and Portugal but something different and confusing. Lastly, if you've ever heard of ancient "Scythia," that is this region. It is said St. Andrew was the apostle to this territory and evangelized the masses.
To get to Georgia, you can travel from Greece across the Bosphorus through Istanbul and into the heart of Turkey. Most of Turkey's northern border is the Black Sea, but to the North East, it borders Georgia. Thus Georgia's Western border is the Black Sea, Russia is its northern neighbor, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are to its south, East of Turkey.
Also, you could take your mind's eye to Iran. Georgia is a buffer state, along with Azerbaijan between Iran and Russia. So now you know where we are. Anything East of Turkey is usually referred to as "Asian," but connections to the European Christian West have had an outsized influence in the country.
Historically, the Georgian church dates back to 337 and was established by priests sent by Constantine the Great. After his conversion, Georgia and Armenia would become the first Christian nations outside of his Empire. The church was part of the larger church of Iberia, which was under the Apostolic See of Antioch. From early on, the Bishop of Antioch allowed the Georgian church to name its own local bishops as a semi autocephalous church under the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. The "Catholicos," or later, Patriarch of Georgia, helped forge an independent Georgian church. This would be aided by the Georgian script, a non-Indo-European language that looks like elvish. A strong monastic tradition developed several works, including the Bible and local and popular saints' lives.
Its strategic location has also been its greatest liability. The country itself is often divided between those in the West who seek stronger ties with the Greek world and those in the East who favored independence or those with affinities with the Russians and Armenians (Yesterday's show we talked about an Arminian… the don't like Calvin. An Armenian is a neighbor to Georgia).
In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Georgians were dominated by the emergent Islamic powers in the region. During these times, the church would have minimal external contact with other churches and thus developed its own traditions. The same would occur a few centuries later when the Mongols ruled the region.
In 1453 with the fall of Constantinople, the Georgian church, like so many Byzantine churches, was left to fend for herself. Initially, Georgians looked to the catholic West for help. However, things started to go sour when Catholics sent aid and missionaries to Georgia. The country was something like 95% Christian, and so this was seen as unnecessary and offensive. This coincided with the rise of the Russian Orthodox Church, which would serve as an umbrella for the Orthodox Georgians. In 1801, the Russian Empire annexed much of Georgia, and the church was no longer autocephalous. The Russians forced the Georgians to use Church Slavonic rites. A Georgian renaissance in the 1870s called for independence, but this was short-lived.
However, it was in 1917 that emancipation followed the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Within ten days, various heads of the Georgian church came together to decide on the future of the church. And so the answer was given on this, the 25th of March in 1917, you guessed it, autocephaly! The church has a fascinating story since then, but that's for another day. Today we remember the Apostolic Georgian Orthodox church, which was declared autocephalous on, the 25th of March in 1917.
The last word for today comes from the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov. This comes from his “Churchly Joy: Orthodox Devotions for the Church Year.”
For the best self-attestation of the Good is its defenselessness in the face of the power of evil. The best attestation of Truth is silence in the face of much-talkative falsehood. The supreme manifestation of Beauty consists in the unadornment by vain adornment. The power of God triumphs by means of itself, not by means of the power of this world. For the world, there is no power of God. The world does not see and does not know the power of God: it laughs at the power of God. But Christians know that the sign of God is powerlessness in the world — the Infant in the manger.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 25th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who can eat his weight in gooey Khachapuri Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who will refrain from using the word autocephaly for at least a week or two. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.