by Ken Sehested
Baptists and bishops have never played well together. With a few exceptions, neither has been friendly to clergywomen. So how to explain the anomaly of Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze of the Evangelical Baptist Church (EBC) of the Republic of Georgia?
Certainly one of her influences was St. Nino, the 4th century Cappadocian woman who first evangelized her homeland, the region then known as Caucasian Iberia, which became only the second kingdom, following neighboring Armenia, to officially convert to Christianity. But there was also her grandfather, a Baptist pastor.
“When our Archbishop started a Bible school in our church, lots of young women came to study theology. Most of us thought we would use this experience teaching Sunday school, or being good mothers for our future children. We never imaged some of us would become ministers.”
Right: Rusudan Gotsiridze (foreground left) during her 2008 ordination.
I first met Rusudan at the 2009 Global Baptist Peace Conference held in Rome, Italy, where she led compline prayers each evening, and then noon prayers one day at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, hosted by the Benedictine monks who shepherd that congregation. What many conferees considered liturgical boundary-crossing was no stretch to a Georgian Baptist, whose worship is heavily influenced by the Orthodox tradition, complete with incense, icons and colorful clerical garb.
In their own country, the EBC is more known for human rights advocacy. Rusudan’s mentor, Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, was a key figure in the nonviolent Rose Revolution of 2003 that swept from office holdovers from the country’s previous Soviet-aligned regime. He is known by many as a major voice in support of human rights and interfaith collaboration.
Rusudan herself played a pivotal role in her country’s expanded protection of religious minorities. In July the parliament passed an amendment to Georgia’s Civil Code recognizing five other, non-Orthodox groups, including Baptists. Assigned to represent the EBC on a committee shaping that religious liberty legislation, Rusudan initiated a meeting with leaders of the other recognized religious bodies and convinced them to remove all limiting language, effectively extending legal status to all faith communities.
Significantly, one of the first human rights initiatives taken by the EBC after the demise of the Soviet Union was opening a path to ordination for women. Though her graduate degree is in Western literature and language, she continued to take theology courses. Her talents were noticed by EBC’s leaders, who appointed her to a succession of church leadership.
Long story short: On Pentecost Sunday 2008, the EBC ordained Rusudan as a bishop. Though, along with her pastoral duties, she also is a trainer on gender justice with the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation, which she says “is just another form of my ministry.”
“Perhaps the most difficult obstacle I faced [with church leadership roles] was my own self-perceptions. Being young, and being female, are two great disadvantages. It took some time before I could give myself the needed affirmation.”
Sound familiar, anyone?
“I never would have imagined taking on the responsibility of a bishop. On the Sunday I was ordained—kneeling in front of the altar with a huge open Bible over my head—all I could see was a bucket of daisies. The little flowers were looking at me. And I knew God was there with me, saying do not be afraid, my daughter. I will be with you.”
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This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Folio, newsletter of Baptist Women in Ministry.
©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org