Last Sunday was the anniversary of the recognition of the Georgian Church’s Autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, and hence recognised by all other Orthodox Patriarchates. It is mentioned in weekly sermons and is considered a very important event.
Initially the Georgian Church was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch, headquartered in Syria, but was granted self-rule (“Autocephaly”) in 466 in recognition of its strength, administrative competance and strong understanding of local cultural conditions. Autocephaly was forcibly stripped from the Georgian Church by the Russian Imperial administration, in breach of the terms of the Treaty of Georgievsk, and the Church was amalgamated with the Church of Moscow in 1811. As an Exarchy of the Church of Moscow, it was subject to the Holy Synod of the Russian Church, which in turn was controlled by the secular Prosecutor of the Synod, an Imperial bureaucrat answering to the the Empress, hence allowing the Russian state control over the activities of the Georgian Church. Many clergy protested this move and were persecuted or martyred for their position.
To an outsider, it may be hard to grasp why Autocephaly might be important. All Orthodox Churches are in communion with each other, so why is it important that the Church in one small country be self-ruled? The answer lies in the underlying philosophy of the Orthodox communion, that Patriarchates agree on fundamental theological points, and then operate their dioceses, their charitable campaigns, their liturgies and traditions according to local requirements and preferences. While Georgia and Russia have some similar cultural and historical features, their civilisations are quite different and the Church must deal with the reality on the ground. The dark days of the 19th century, when Georgian murals were whitewashed over in cathedrals by Russian officials and Church Slavonic imposed on parishes as the liturgical language, are remembered with some bitterness. The even more perilous times under the Marxists when clergy and laity were martyred and the Church suppressed are in more recent memory.
Rather than recounting in text the process of the restoration of the Georgian Church’s Autocephaly, I will submit to His Holiness Patriarch Ilia to recount his experiences in his own words.