Written by Louise Kirk for The Wanderer:
In the country of Georgia there is an old legend. When God created the earth and gave out lands to the nations the Georgians missed out. They were late for the handout because they were delayed welcoming guests. In asking God’s mercy, they pointed out that to honour guests is a sign of God’s own grace. God forgave the Georgians and blessed them with His last piece of land, the richest and the best which He had hoped to save for Himself.
Georgia, which with the same spirit of generosity has just (Ed. May 15-18) hosted the tenth World Congress of Families, lies to the east of the Black Sea. It claims to be the second oldest Christian nation in the world after Armenia. According to tradition, the Apostles Simon and Andrew preached here in the first century, and in 327 AD Christianity became the state religion of what is now its eastern flank. The country’s rich soil was one of the first in the world to be farmed, and it still boasts some 400 varieties of grapes. Georgians claim that the very word “vine” comes from their ancient language, which through all the centuries has managed to keep its own rare alphabet.
This is a remarkable achievement given that the country is truly on a crossroads between east and west, north and south, and has been repeatedly subjugated by its powerful neighbours, Russia, Persia and Turkey. It has only recently emerged from Communism and the effects of years of misrule are readily seen in the shabby buildings of the still beautiful capital Tbilisi. These coexist alongside proud new structures. Most audacious of all is the splendid Holy Trinity Cathedral, built between 1995 and 2004 and by volume one of the largest religious buildings in the world.
However, the reason that the World Congress of Families was held here was because of what its Chairman Levan Vasadze sees as a new danger to his country: the decadent sexual liberalism of the West. The country had already inherited from its communist past a worrying falling birth rate. Emigration of the young has become a new threat as are the liberal reforms forced through by the country’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili as part of his bid to cozy up to the West. Three years ago, on 17 May 2013, a gay rights rally ended in violence when indignant members of the Orthodox church also took to the streets of Tbilisi.
Patron of the Congress, and the man widely credited with holding Georgia together for the last 39 years, was Patriarch Ilia ll. He condemned the earlier violence but was not afraid to continue arguing that homosexuality is a sin and should not be popularized. And so he used an age-old tactic. The pagan event, in this case the International Day Against Homophobia of 17 May, would be replaced with a Christian festival, the Georgian Family Day. There would be a Family March led by an icon of Our Lady, held aloft through the streets of Tbilisi to Holy Trinity Cathedral. This year, the Congress was arranged around 17 May and we, the participants, were invited to join the procession.
The countries of Eastern Europe have much to teach the West. Allan Carlson, founder of the World Congress of Families, commented that a key claim of the sexual rights movement is that it is on the “side of history” and those who defend tradition are on the wrong. However, as he pointed out, the Bolsheviks thought the same, and so did Adolf Hitler. Society in practice goes through cycles, and lower fertility, later marriage, and loss of the economic autonomy within the family has always been associated with a weakening of society as a whole. Eastern Europeans, including Russia, have been through that revolution and are coming out the other side. Homosexuality is nothing new to them. It was decriminalized for the first time by Lenin in 1920. No-fault divorce, abortion, even radical sex education were variously brought in by communist governments long before they reached America. So when Eastern Europeans now turn their backs on them, they are not being reactionary: they are reacting against attacks on the family which are familiar to them and which they do not want.
A small country like Georgia remains vulnerable. We hear elsewhere of how international bodies put pressure on any country which resists their blandishments. Gabrielle Kuby, who has herself suffered death threats for her work in exposing attacks on the family, spoke at the Congress of the irony whereby the United Nations and the European Union, which were set up to maintain nations in peaceful coexistence, are now at the center of a war against society itself.
Some things don’t change. Fr Josiah Trenham quoted St John Chrysostom’s advice to parents on teaching their children the dangers of binge drinking. Fathers should sit with their sons outside the tavern at closing time and let them witness its ugliness at first-hand. Education as a whole played a large part in the Congress. The first day was dedicated to it. Where possible, family, school and church should be working together as a strong triangle of influence. Christine Vollmer, a revered figure in the Family Congress movement, spoke of how her international Alive to the World program was doing exactly that, helping to underpin the transmission of virtues from one generation to the next in all three spheres but especially at school and for those who don’t encounter good values elsewhere. Various speakers, led by a lively Russian mother, spoke of home-educating as a serious option.
Local interest in this discussion was palpable. On the main day of the Congress, well over 2,000 delegates packed the Philharmonic Hall and the cameras whirred as two hours of the event was to be put on prime time television. The Patriarch himself, a frail figure standing unsteadily on his stick, blessed participants from over 50 countries and spoke of the need to fix the “Deficit of Love” in society which could only be solved by eliminating the “Deficit of Family”. He warned against breaking away from the hard-wiring of human nature by redefining either marriage or family. His speech won him a standing ovation.
Levan Vasadze pulled no punches in his own stirring speech. When he was speaking of the turbulence that his country had endured one had to pinch oneself to realize that he was talking about very recent events. Every family, he said, had been affected within memory by bloodshed or by members being imprisoned. It was only in 2008 that the Russians had last invaded. Now his country remains afflicted by one of the most liberal anti-discrimination laws in the world. Its education programs were laced with gender theory. Its annual abortion rate of 100,000 was about twice the size of its birthrate which is particularly worrying when 50,000 more people die each year than are born. By 2050, the population could be expected to shrink by 28%, especially of its native Georgians.
That one man could attempt to reverse all of this would seem ridiculous, if one hadn’t met him. The Congress was very much his, and the Patriarch’s, inspiration, and it was down to him that it was ever carried through. He has in the past been laughed at by fellow leading lights in Georgian society, but he was quick to tell us that a good handful of politicians were there, together with the television cameras, and he is confident that reforms will follow on from the work of the Congress. This will continue to expand as all the talks from it are mounted on the website (www.worldcongress.ge) over the coming weeks. There is something particularly invigorating about being part of an event which is expected to make a real impact on society.
Vasadze is not just a man of words. His actions include setting up a school on a hillside outside Tbilisi where he lives with his wife and soon-to-be eight children. We foreign delegates were bussed up there, to see how the pupils are brought up to live their spirituality as part of everyday life. He described his educational ideas as part of a cross, the body (sport) leading to the spirit (daily communal prayer in a beautiful chapel), with the arms of the cross stretching to the understanding of others (academics) and serving them (practical skills, including the arts, gardening and cooking). Not for him any measurement by exam results, although he conceded that these are important and his children do very well at them. No child can enter his school unless their parents take out a commitment to take part too, coming up to the school at least once a month to help with the practical skills. He has turned down children from rich families who are unsuitable, at the cost of supporting poorer families, to the tune of about 70%, out of his own pocket.
This is a man who means business. He not only feasted us, in true Georgian style, but he took us to the theatre to watch Georgian dance. As I watched the male dancers leaping across the stage I thought these are not people to be trifled with. What they say, they mean.
And what did Vasadze say, in asking where we go from here? “There is only one direction. We go back to our Christian roots.”