Its importance to the Georgian population is undeniable – 72% expressed ‘complete confidence’ in the Georgian Orthodox Church according to a household survey conducted by CRRC in 2013. However, for some foreigners in Georgia, the Georgian Church is simply local jurisdiction of their spiritual home – the world-wide Orthodox Church which also counts Russians, Greeks, Arabs, Romanians and countless converts among its faithful.
Protopresbyter Joseph Fester’s father was one such English-speaking convert in 1950s America. “After the war, my parents moved to Southern California. My father was a Presbyterian but became Orthodox before marrying my mother. So they started going to the local [Russian] Church which was all in Slavonic, and he didn’t know any of that” Father Joseph told Georgia Today. “So after I was born, he said ‘I wonder if there’s anyone else like me’, and put an ad in the local paper asking if anyone was interested in an English-speaking Orthodox community. Seventeen families responded. He got a blessing from the Bishop, found a priest and that’s how the parish started … and I’ve worked in missionary parishes for most of my ordained life.”
Father Joseph, who serves under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the ‘first-among-equals’ of the Orthodox churches, was not looking for missionary work when he moved to Tbilisi with his librarian wife two months ago. “When I came here, I knew my wife would have a job, I knew I’d be cooking, cleaning, shopping, walking the dog, learning how to cook Georgian dishes, a kind of house husband!” But after meeting with Father Davit Sharashenidze, Archpriest at Tbilisi’s ancient ‘Blue Monastery’ Church of St Andrew and head of the Patriarch’s press service, a new missionary project began to take shape.
“Father David said to me: ‘You know, the Patriarch has an interest in some sort of witness to ex-pats in Georgia’ and so he set up a meeting with His Holiness, who asked a lot of very good questions. In the end the Patriarch gave us a blessing to start something once a month and see how it goes.”
Father Joseph was the principle celebrant of a Divine Liturgy (the Orthodox service of Holy Communion equivalent to the Catholic Mass) on October 3rd which was served mostly in English. Fr Davit, who also speaks English, assisted in the celebration and the parish choir had rehearsed English versions some of the traditional Georgian liturgical chants. Apart from the usual crowd of Georgian-speaking faithful – some of whom were slightly perplexed to find the Saturday morning service celebrated in a foreign language – about 10 ex-pats also attended the service.
“There are many foreign men in Georgia who have Georgian wives, and who have converted to Orthodoxy in order to marry them” says Father Joseph. “One of the people who attended the early October service said it was the first time he’d heard the Divine Liturgy in English in seven years! Most of these people already go to churches in Tbilisi and at this stage, what we’re giving is a kind of nourishment to their spiritual lives - to hear services in a language they understand.”
Although a novelty in Tbilisi, English-language services are very much in line with current developments in the Georgian Orthodox Church. “There is a large, vibrant Georgian Orthodox community in America,” says Father Joseph, “and the Patriarch recognizes the need for Georgian priests to be trained in English so that the children in those churches can worship in the language they grow up speaking.” Although most of the national Orthodox Churches use a traditional liturgical language such as Koine Greek or Church Slavonic, there are no restrictions on services being celebrated in whatever language the congregation understands.
Father Joseph will celebrate the Divine Liturgy again on Saturday 25th October. “Hopefully by then the word will have gotten out and more people will come” he says. “Right now it’s a very organic development – the choir are translating the chants into English, sometimes on the fly!” Asked about the future of this nascent Anglophone Orthodox mission, Father Joseph replies: “Let’s see where God leads us!”