Father Teodore Gignadze is an Orthodox Christian missionary whose recent lecture at Ilia State University provoked protest from a segment of Georgian society. Distinguished from other Orthodox Christian clergy by virtue of his charisma and active missionary activity, Father Teodore’s multimedia sermons in print, audio and video formats arouse interest among the congregation. Tabula interviewed Father Teodore in a yard of the Jvartamaghleba (Feasts of the Cross) Church, where he has preached for nine years now. During the hour-long interview, he spoke about the problems the Orthodox Church faces in the modern world and touched on various other topics, including social services provided by the Church, the Soviet legacy, abortion and the Church’s attitude toward minorities.
What trace has the Tsarist, first, and then the Soviet rule left on the Georgian society and on the Church as a social institution?
I can hardly imagine a person living in Georgia not being concerned about that. One who does not think about that is not a dignified citizen of our country. That must be your pain. It is unimaginable that this problem does not affect us. We live with that, in this condition.
That two-century period [of Tsarist-Soviet domination] was preceded by something that brought about those two centuries in a cause-and-effect chain. That two-century period was the last link of other problems in political life – moral, state and religious life too. A positive aspect which that period brought was we were united within common borders of one state. But [we were also] under the boot of a violent, Tsarist imperial pressure. We reap results [of that period] today.
We have lost the sense of ownership, the sense that our country belongs to us. That is a terrible problem and to eliminate that we need to raise ourselves up.
How did that period affect the Church? What sort of problems did it produce and where do you see those problems manifested?
Of course it affected [the Church]. During the past twenty years, since we have regained independence, people thirsty for religious life have frequented the Church. Churches have become crowded; temples and monasteries have been built; the number of clergy has increased. But we manage to live our religious life only by appearance. The main problem today is that we have restored Christianity only in its external form.
The Church, as an organism, has both its form and its essence. Here, the external side overwhelms Christ. That problem gives rise to myths about Orthodox Christianity. We Christians, including the clergy, facilitate the spread of that mythology.
We do not realize the content which is in the form. That is a deviation from Orthodox Christianity and gives birth to a counter-reaction in a God-seeking person because one does not seek God with laws and rules, but with something else. And that creates conflict between the Church and society.
The Church often finds time to set up synodal commissions on, say, ID cards. But we have not seen yet a document evaluating the Communist past…
If it were up to me, I would establish a commission to study that issue.
As regards ID cards, it was I who supported the creation of that commission. Misinformation that circulated concerning those cards stirred up such wrong emotions and I wanted that situation to be put right.
Does putting the issue of electronic cards into a spiritual sphere not indicate the confusion of the form and essence in the Church?
When asked about those cards, I say – Apostle Paul teaches me that there is no power, let alone a card, in the world that can stand between me and God.
If it may restrict anyone’s freedom in civil terms, that’s bad. An ordinary passport can also be a mechanism of control. If such a problem emerges, we must oppose that. That is a problem not only in Georgia; as far as I know, even non-Orthodox Christian countries had some fears – in England and Germany too.
The degree of human freedom and the striving toward God cannot be restricted by normative acts. Paul the Apostle says that he was freer in his chains. Amazing words, are they not? Therefore, that does not matter in spiritual terms. How many saints did the Church acquire in those terrible Communist years and the first three centuries of Christianity? Do you see how much the degree of freedom strengthens at such times?
Just recently, the lustration law in Bulgaria revealed that, out of fifteen higher hierarchs in the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, eleven collaborated with the Soviet special services in various forms. One of the reasons for not adopting the above-mentioned law in Georgia….
Was that Georgia also has such episcopes as well?
Was the Bulgarian Church more oppressed than the Georgian one?
Imagine a seventy-year-long tyrannical state. I lived there. There was not a single person who had achieved any hierarchical step – be it in civil life or in religious life, especially – if he/she had to have contacts with foreign countries and whose name, surname was not registered by special services and control imposed on him/her. A dossier would be drawn up and all that would be kept by the KGB.
I do not know whether that can be considered collaboration. I still do not view such a relationship as “buying” a person if that person did its spiritual job purely. Just because one could not venture forth against the Soviet Union with saber, could not act as a hero, did not mean that he or she was a spy.
Before the Great Fast, we see how our Patriarch Ilia II, down on his knees, is asking for forgiveness, but never saying anything concrete…
Imagine, you are the Patriarch for thirty years, have to put up with [former Secretary of Central Committee of Communist Party and President of Georgia Eduard] Shevardnadze’s regime during a long time…
But the Patriarch had not had a bad relationship with Shevardnadze, even made a speech on his birthday…
I do not want to act as the Patriarch’s advocate because I understand that full well as I lived in that epoch. By that logic, we may entirely cross that period off our lives. It is impossible to strike the past out. Relationship with the government of that time was not easy; those who were in that government – the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Executive Committee, etcetera – we cannot cross them out. That was a nomenclature through which that state functioned.
When no remorse can be seen in connection with that, the Church maintains awkward silence….
One must repent sin and crime. Have we sinned or committed crimes? I do not think so. Quite the contrary, I believe that every top hierarch – from [the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia from 1921 to 1927] Ambrosi Khelaia to the current Patriarch – had been martyrs because they had to tolerate that terrible monster. And what does the special service do today? Do you think that any hierarch can go without the supervision of the special service?
At the jubilee of Patriarch of all the Russia Kirill in Moscow, the Georgian Patriarch said that some “misunderstanding” took place between Georgia and Russia, referring to the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. Were not those words too soft when our country and all Western countries assess that as an occupation?
The Patriarch makes myriad assessments regarding the occupation of Abkhazia, doesn’t he? I do not want to act as the Patriarch’s advocate. He does not need any. Had his diplomatic talent been used, there would have been more chances to avoid the loss of Abkhazia and Samachablo [South Ossetia].
Apart from being the father of the nation and the head of the Church, the Patriarch, by his status, is a diplomat as well. We know how close the Church and state are interlinked in Russia. That was a diplomatic step toward Kirill as to a diplomat too.
What result has that diplomacy brought so far?
We do not know how worse results could have occurred in the absence of that diplomacy. You’d better talk with the Patriarch about that. How can I answer questions which you ask and go beyond Christology? I viewed that step as a diplomatic gesture; that is supported by his comments about Abkhazia and Samachablo.
The Russian Orthodox Church is de facto ruler of the Abkhazian eparchy. The eparchy itself falls under the direct jurisdiction of the Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II. Every priest there has been anointed by the Russian Patriarch. Only two priests, Besarion Aplia and Davit Sarsania, have been anointed by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Why have they not been defrocked yet?
I do not know. That also falls within the competence of His Holiness. Perhaps that is a diplomatic move as well, leaving them a chance for remorse and forgiveness.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem severed Eucharistic ties with the Orthodox Church of Romania only because the Romanian Orthodox Church started the construction of a church without his blessing. For twenty years now, the Russian Patriarchate has intruded into the jurisdiction of the Georgian Church. The Russian Patriarchate never scrimps on extending congratulations to leaders of Georgia’s occupied territories. Is the Georgian Church not overly friendly with the Patriarchate of Moscow?
These topics are, of course, painful and hard. How can the severance of Eucharistic ties with Russia benefit us? The condition of Jerusalem is different. We have our territories lost… I am afraid. Perhaps some threads are kept for changing something in the future.
In the Soviet period, other religious institutions also suffered damage. Today, Catholic and Armenian communities demand that several churches be handed over to them. Orthodox Christians conduct their service in Catholic churches. Does that fit in with Christianity?
I am not good at diplomacy. I am a Kakhetian from Kiziqi. I will be straightforward: I would set up a bilateral commission; if it would establish that historically this is mine and that is yours, I would see no problem. As a Christian Orthodox, I am not afraid of Monophysites, Catholics having their houses of prayer. I think whatever belongs to you must be yours. My power is not in a concrete temple; it is in a live relationship in relationship with God. We cannot afford for our children to be lost. Mistrust and opposition to each other is bad. If we are concerned about that problem, we should solve it jointly, bridge the gaps, engage in dialogue. There are some areas in which we do not understand one another.
Not long ago, the Georgian Parliament adopted a law on religious associations, enabling religious organizations to be registered as legal entities of public law. What is your take on that law?
It is difficult to discuss a book which you have not read or speak about a topic in which you are not well versed. I am not a lawyer. I follow the same principle in regard to religious minorities: If that was theirs, let them keep it. Let them have a house of prayer and pray. That is their right. I do not see a problem in that. What worries me is the proselytism, aggressive proselytism. In the modern world, it is unacceptable. Some totalitarian sects are even banned in a number of states. When you have a huge resource of money and enjoy equal conditions with me, I can say a word and you can say that word in a stronger way. You can even have your own TV station and a lot more. Naturally, it hurts when a young Georgian child who grows up and runs around cannot understand the greatness of the Orthodox Church and can even side with [totalitarian sects].
Perhaps, the solution is for the Orthodox clergy to step out from the churches and walk street by street as the apostles did… rather than ask for state assistance alone.
That is how I act. Helpless is the priest who needs assistance from Caesar. That is a shame and must not be done.
That twenty-five million lari allocated to the Patriarchate from the state budget, what is that?
Show me that twenty-five million. How can I know? How can Father Teodore know what money is transferred to the Patriarchate?
That does not happen only here. Does the same not happen in other foreign countries too? Are not a whole set of churches financed in foreign countries and even paid salaries?
I reiterate, you ask me about such things which I do not know: Where do these sums go and why are they so large? I am sure about one thing – my competence is to strengthen the congregation of my church spiritually and to be a missionary.
But a social service is also…
Should I speak out loud how my church manages to do that? If I had funds, I would give preference to missionary activity in Georgia rather than huge-scale construction. This, however, does not relate to the Holy Trinity Church. But, in general, missionary activity should be the top priority. That is the most important activity: missionary work, first, and then social service.
The Foundation of Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia is not at all directed toward the assistance of vulnerable groups. Under the supervision of the Patriarchate are several children’s homes and one house for the elderly, the standards of which are arguable. It is a fact that all this is very little given an eighty-four percent [of the population] congregation. The Patriarchate’s maternity home is not free. The charity foundation Lazare, which had carried out humanitarian activity for quite a long time, received assistance from Protestant and Catholic foundations; that is, from the foundations which now are even branded as torturers. Do you not think that there is a lack of social services?
I know that we are not good at missionary work. As regards the social service, if the level of our social service is not commensurate with possibilities, that is bad. In my opinion, that is even a crime before God.
I want to ask you about abortions. According to surveys, some thirty thousand fetuses are aborted each year. Looking at priorities of the Church, one does not get the feeling that they are seen as human beings. Epistles, sermons of the Catholicos-Patriarch do not allocate any space to that issue. People may take to the streets to voice protest against ID cards, but yet stay silent about the killing of thirty thousand unborn babies. Do you not consider that a weakness of the Church and an inconsistency?
Of course, overall that is our deficiency, deficiency of the Church. A segment of the congregation kicks up a great fuss about ID cards whereas that issue must have caused a terrible uproar. However, in case of reaction on the part of the Church, we would face bitter resistance from a number of organizations that we infringe women’s’ rights. But it would be OK to have such resistance. The law is very strange – up to three months of gestation, abortion is not a crime, while if a [fetus] is three months and a day old, that is already a crime. That is an absurd law and we must express our position on that.
Let’s touch upon the Davit Gareji issue. Just recently, sharp comments were made on that issue. Marches were even organized. Father Illarion of Davit Gareji monastery declared that, if need be, even war must be waged to return those territories…
It was as early as the time of Ilia Chavchavadze when he said that the time for war with swords had passed. Our war must be waged with reason and heart and knowledge. What war are they talking about!
Such marches have never been conducted with respect to Ilori monastery in Abkahzia.
Must be. Such marches must be conducted [about Ilori]. Such marches would not have solved specifically that problem [at Gareji]; it might have aggravated it.
In recent times, several actions have been staged against homophobia in Tbilisi. Do you think that a segment of clergymen, including the Union of Orthodox Christian Parents, were very aggressive?
If there was aggression on their part, the aggression is not a rule of Christian life. Nothing can be solved by any form of aggression. And it is wrong in its root; that is, aggression is incorrect in its content. Thus, I cut off myself from the roots from where I stem. If that was the case, it was incorrect.
Bursting into the Kavkasia TV company, beating people outside Ilia State University… The Church does not react to such facts. On the contrary, aggressors are bestowed with a decorated pectoral cross and the right to wear a miter. Spreading Christ’s teachings through violent methods is not condemned by the Patriarchate…
I condemn any violence from religious servants. The personal offence of homosexual is, of course, unacceptable. He/she is a human being. But, at the same time, it is a lack of love and indifference toward such persons if you do not explain to them, fatherly, and do not show that that is incorrect. Such people come to me. I have cured some.
Science would find it difficult to agree with you because forty years ago the American Psychiatric Association established that homosexuality is not a disease. The science shows changing sexual orientation is as impossible as changing any other identity.
What scientists say is, of course, important and noteworthy for me. But, in this case, I would totally disagree. First, because Apostle Paul tells me openly that homosexuals, adulterers, drunkards, etcetera, will not inherit the kingdom of God.
That [homosexual] inclination itself is not considered a sin, a sin which will distance a person from God. Of course, a person has an inclination toward adultery, drinking – the inclination itself does not distance one from God. A person strays from God when he/she succumbs to vice, feelings, by personal choice. Consequently, when he/she succumbs to such vice, feelings and makes a personal choice in favor of such corporeal inclinations, he/she sins.
When I say that this is a disease, I thus help that person. If I tell a person with such an inclination who approaches me that that is normal, he/she will not fight against it.
You said that homosexuality is a graver sin than the sin of murder. Doesn’t such rhetoric incite people toward violence? Do you know what such rhetoric can generate in the minds of young people who left the street and went into the Church?
I am concerned about what you have just said because, when such people approach me, I give them a brotherly hug and try to assist them. I reiterate, no one must be hurt. I know many clergymen who treat this matter wholeheartedly. On the contrary, I have said earlier that despair is a graver sin than homosexuality. No one should interpret my words in that way.
Does the aggression which is voiced by the Church very distinctly not impede the Orthodox Church in converting homosexuals?
Aggression will impede. We must voice our position. No person can be manhandled, offended. The Church can never be an aggressor. In the Old Testament, however, homosexuality is equalized with zoophilia. Apostle Paul also says that, but does not push any sinner away. No matter what inclination people have, I show them Christ. When they see Christ, they will rectify their inclinations.
The approach is wrong in the entire society if they show aggression. If they treat such people with love and at the same time point out, and believe themselves, that that is not normal, then their position is correct.
How did our society meet the spread and revival of Christianity in Georgia? With forms – the essence was not realized. I am here to learn relation with the living God, to learn Christ. When the whole conscience is toward Christ, one cannot hate a person. No matter how grave a person sins, he/she is a son of God, created in the image of God. Therefore, if he/she has a problem, I will help with love. When one does not see God and Christianity but only mere laws, that is the end – he/she starts assessing with law and not Christ. That is the problem.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 105, published 18 June 2012.