Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Tbilisi Chalice Goes Home

Archbishop Songulashvili (L)
and Rev. George Reed
The church of which I’m a member, Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh, has had a partnership for many years with First Baptist Church in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia (formerly part of the Soviet Union). The pastor with whom we’ve had the closest contact, Malkhaz Songulashvili, has now become the Archbishop for Baptists in Georgia. (You did not read that wrong. Baptists in the Republic of Georgia have bishops and an archbishop!) Malkhaz was at Pullen on November 13 to preach and lead in the celebration of Eucharist.

Malkhaz has been courageous in his advocacy and practice of nonviolent action as Georgia has gone through its “Rose Revolution,” which moved Georgia away from authoritarian government and toward democratic reform. The Church of England honored his leadership in September 2005 when he was awarded the Lambeth Cross by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Sunday’s service was a deeply moving one, which he and Pullen pastor Nancy Petty had crafted to focus on the liturgy of the church in Georgia, but also in ways accessible to Baptists in North Carolina. So, we had incense, but no wine!

What caught me off-guard and deeply affected me was Malkhaz’ telling of the purpose of his trip to the United States. It seems that the Baptist church inTbilisi, the capital of Georgia, had had a communion chalice dating back to the time of the church’s founding in 1868. (It was the first Baptist church in all of what would be the USSR.) In 1928, the church inTbilisi gave the chalice to a Baptist congregation in Moscow as an expression of their oneness in the faith, even in the face of differences between Russians and Georgians. Shortly after the end of World War II, a delegation from the United States visited the Soviet Union at the invitation of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The delegation was invited to visit the Baptist church in Moscow, and the church gave the Americans a treasured possession, the chalice from Tbilisi, again as a symbol of the power of faith to overcome differences. So it ended up in the United States, was labeled the “Chalice of Peace” in some circles, but then pretty much disappeared.

Archbishop Songulashvili is completing his doctoral dissertation at Oxford. In doing research on the history of Baptists in Georgia, he came across information about the 1946 American visit. Further research found a reference to the chalice, and he was able to trace it to Mercer University in “our” Georgia, the US state. Someone there in the Mercer library had a vision of a chalice in a little-used room in the library (Malkhaz noted that she was not a woman given to visions!). When she went to the room she had visioned, there was a chalice, but it was labeled as Russian, not Georgian. It turned out to be the missing Tbilisi chalice, mislabeled because the Americans had gotten it in Moscow. Mercer has given it back to the Baptist church in Tbilisi, and Malkhaz is in the States to receive it. He came to Raleigh to celebrate communion, using the chalice, with his brothers and sisters at Pullen.

Are you still with me? Why was this particularly moving to me? Malkhaz mentioned in telling this story that a letter which led him to the chalice was from a “Dr. Newton.” My mind went spinning.

One of my grandfathers was a Baptist preacher in Georgia. He died at a relatively young age, almost twenty years before I was born, from an infection that antibiotics would cure today. I don’t know much about him, though I was given the name “Joseph” – the “J.” in “J. George” – as a tribute to him. One of the few pieces of his history that I have is an obituary noting that my grandfather’s funeral was preached by his close friend from seminary, Dr. Louie Newton. Louie Newton went on to be president of the Georgia Baptist Convention (the one in the US), president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and vice president of the Baptist World Alliance.

Could it be?

You know I wouldn’t be going through this story in order to tell you that the “Dr. Newton” was somebody else! I can’t tell you the emotions I sensed as I put my hand on the chalice to receive communion. The tangible, physical tie to someone who was a close friend of the grandfather I never knew . . . Well, it was a moment I’ll never forget.

But, wait, there’s a little bit more. Special music Sunday morning featured a piece for violin and handbells that included the hymn It Is Well with My Soul. Though I had grown up in a church with a large music program, I had not known that hymn until I came to Ridgecrest (the Baptist assembly near Asheville) as a high schooler and heard it for the first time. I loved it. Still do. When I returned home from Ridgecrest, pulled out a hymnal, and played the hymn for my parents (this “new” hymn I had “discovered”), my dad was quick to say that it had been his father’s favorite hymn and had been sung at his funeral. That would be the service Dr. Louie Newton had led.

The inscription on the chalice reads “Drink from it, all of you!” In addition to these poignant reminders of my dad and of his dad, Sunday’s service was a powerful witness to our oneness in Christ, stronger than barriers of language, distances of geography, and differences in styles of worship.

–George Reed, Executive Director

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