A DISPUTE over homosexuality is threatening to tear apart the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (EBCG).
The row has already led to the resignation of the Archbishop of the small Church, and split the congregation at the denomination’s cathedral in the country’s capital, Tbilisi.
The long-running friction began in 2013, when a small group of Georgian pro-gay activists staged a demonstration against homophobia. A mob of thousands attacked the protest, smashing car windows and assaulting the demonstrators before being forced away by police.
In response, the then Archbishop of the EBCG, the Most Revd Malkhaz Songulashvili, issued a statement condemning the violence and the authorities for not protecting the rights of LGBT people in Georgia, an overwhelmingly Orthodox nation.
But it was a second, later statement from Archbishop Songulashvili, which explored theological thinking on same-sex relationships and described the diversity of sexuality among humans as “the gift of God”, that sparked the ongoing confrontation.
After a number of EBCG priests objected to the second statement, the Church’s Synod asked Archbishop Songulashvili to withdraw his comments on homosexuality, which he refused to do, and instead resigned as Archbishop.
He remained a diocesan bishop, however, and in charge of the Peace Cathedral, in Tbilisi. The newly elected Archbishop, the Most Revd Merab Gaprindashvili, then insisted that Bishop Songulashvili should stop presiding at cathedral services.
When he refused, Archbishop Gaprindashvili began holding separate services at another building in Tbilisi, attended by his supporters.
Bishop Songulashvili said last week that Archbishop Gaprindashvili, who was once his protégé, had led people “to schism, and then he declared that he left the cathedral to look after the ‘lost sheep’”.
Bishop Songulashvili said, however, that he did not regret taking a stand. “For me, it was a matter of human dignity and integrity. I have a lot of colleagues among high-ranking clergy who prefer to keep quiet until they retire.”
When asked if he believed that his Church was homophobic, he replied: “Of course it is. Even well-meant people seem to be deeply affected by the Soviet past, where homosexuality was criminalised.
“I suppose I do see my role as prophetic, but not only about the LGBT issue. There are other phobias to be defeated and eradicated in Eastern Europe.”
Archbishop Gaprindashvili, who declined to comment when contacted, has denied causing a schism, in a letter circulated online. If the opponents of Bishop Songulashvili demanded that he create a new Church, he wrote, he would resign to preserve the unity of the EBCG.
He also wrote that his disagreement with Bishop Songulashvili was only over the permissibility of same-sex relationships, and not whether the Church should combat homophobia. A meeting between the two clergymen has been scheduled for this month.
“I do believe that we can reach an agreement which will be our road-map on the way of unity,” Archbishop Gaprindashvili concluded in his letter. But Bishop Songulashvili was less positive.
“I am not optimistic, because this is not only a theological matter,” he said. “It has considerable socio-political implications.” Some Christian donors who fund the EBCG’s social programmes have threatened to withdraw their money because of his stance on LGBT issues.
A former Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, who is a long-standing personal friend of Bishop Songulashvili, said that the Bishop had had huge success in leading the EBCG, but feared that time spent in Oxford completing a Ph.D. had damaged his ministry in his home country.
“He took a tiny Church, which was living in the Dark Ages, and, in a period of ten years, took it to being one of the strongest Churches outside the Georgian Orthodox Church,” Bishop Platten said. “The one naïve thing Malkhaz did was to come over here for four years, and think the Church would be just the same when he came back.”