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Royal reforms instituted in 467, however, led to the “nationalization” of the church of Kartli, including its independence, or autocephaly, from Antioch; the appointment of a chief hierarch, or catholicos, chosen from the Georgian clergy; and the creation of new eparchies. By the sixth century, Georgian replaced Greek in the celebration of the Divine Mysteries, which remained close to practices in Jerusalem and the monasteries of Mar Chariton and Mar Sabas in Palestine.

While two bishops from the western Georgian kingdom of Egrisi participated in the first ecumenical council of Nicea (325), the church grew slowly in that kingdom. Not until 523 did the king of Egrisi embrace Christianity and declare it the state religion.

Because of its strong relationship to Byzantium, the church of Egrisi celebrated the sacraments according to the Byzantine rites of Constantinople. These rites, while reflecting the imperial legacy of the capital, synthesized those of the Antiochene and Jerusalem churches. Services were held in Greek until as late as the ninth century.

Armenians. The Georgian churches were spared the violence associated with the Christological controversies that rocked the Byzantine world. While sympathizing with the theological formula decreed by the Council of Chalcedon (that Jesus, “like us in everything except sin,” possessed two natures, divine and human), the Georgian churches remained ambiguous in deference to their Armenian neighbors and allies, who were rebelling against the Persians and therefore unable to participate in the council. (The Persian emperor demanded his Armenian subjects renounce Christianity, which he identified as a symbol of their loyalty to his Byzantine rival. The Armenian bishops declared their loyalty to Persia, but refused to abjure the Christian faith. They could hardly endorse a theological position initiated by the Byzantine church and enforced by the Byzantine emperor.)

In 506, Armenian and Georgian bishops, monks and members of the laity gathered in the Armenian city of Dvin. There, they proclaimed their confessional unity and apparently accepted a papal-endorsed Christological compromise — the Henotikon of Zeno. They did not sever communion with those churches that embraced the council.

The cultural, sociopolitical and theological differences between the two churches, however, became clear after the Armenian Church broke with Constantinople in 551. Consequently, the Armenian and Georgian churches grew further apart and in 610 the Georgian catholicos of Mtskheta separated from the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenians had by then rejected the decrees of Chalcedon as innovations. Today, these theological approaches are understood to reflect cultural, linguistic and political differences and are considered theologically complementary.

Consolidation. Caught between endless wars involving the Armenians, Byzantines, Persians and Arabs, the Georgian states fractured further. Yet, the catholicos of Mtskheta in the eastern kingdom of Kartli exercised leadership and provided the basis for the eventual unification of the Georgian church and state.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Church history Georgian Orthodox Church Revival/restoration