Primate Fr. Daniel Findikyan

Primate Findikyan Refocuses Direction of Eastern Diocese, Assembly Covers Wide-ranging Issues

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BURLINGTON, Mass. — The 117th Assembly of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) was hosted by St. James Armenian Church of Watertown, with the general sessions on May 2-4 at the Boston Marriott at Burlington. There were 148 registered delegates.

In many ways, the highlight of the Diocesan Assembly was the keynote speech of Primate Fr. Daniel Findikyan on May 3 in which he laid out his new approach for the Eastern Diocese and all its connecting bodies, which he called “Building Up the Body of Christ.”

Paul Mardoian and Janet Mardigian at the podium

The Primate’s Vision

Findikyan began by reviewing his first year in office (for background see this 2018 interview), declaring: “During this past year, it has been a time for me of discovery, a time for learning. Learning is always a humbling enterprise and that process continues. But it has also been a time for me to connect with the entirety of this great Diocese, to connect with our parishes, our pastors and clergy, and all of our people. It has been so heartening. It has been so uplifting.” He exclaimed that for the most part, his job this year has been fun. He praised the clergy of the Eastern Diocese as “the very finest, the most well trained, most dedicated clergy in the entire Armenian Church” and gave various examples of their work.

Findikyan found that three phrases written by St. Paul in Ephesians (4:11 to 16), encapsulate for him the vision and some of the goals that he thought the Diocese should follow: the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God; equipping the saints for the work of ministry; and knitting together the body in love.

Findikyan decried what he saw as an attempt by the Diocese “to become all things for all Armenians — all things for all people: a kind of a marketplace for all things Armenian.” Though this might be motivated by the well-intentioned hope that people would come for various activities and then become engaged directly in the spiritual life of the church, he questioned whether this was diluting “our specifically God-given Christian mission.”

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He noted that some people had told him they chose to attend non-Armenian churches for spiritual nourishment while coming to the Armenian Church for the sake of their heritage and tradition, as well as to be with friends and family. He said, “That stings,” and rhetorically wondered, “How can we better shape our people into fervent, zealous informed followers of Jesus Christ, people of God?”

From left, Diocesan Council members Fr. Aren Jebejian, Paul Mardoian, and Antranig Garibian

Findikyan concluded that this required an educational endeavor. It is necessary, he said, to work together to develop a program of Christian formation with engaging resources “faithful to the theology and tradition of the Armenian Church” and tailored to diverse demographic groups in the parishes “from font to funeral.”

Though he said good progress had been made in recent years, it still needed what Findikyan called a “culture change.” Every activity of the church, parish and diocese, should become a teaching moment and opportunity to grow as Christian Armenians, he said. The central mission of all parish and Diocesan organizations must be “building up the body of Christ.”

Secondly, Findikyan, with some reservation, quoted a rough estimate of around 600,000 Armenians on the territory of the Eastern Diocese (the present writer would argue, based on available data, that this is an inflated figure but this does not affect the point the Primate was making). The priests available, approximately 50 clergymen and 7 theologically trained people at the Diocesan headquarters, are not enough to tend to their needs, he said. Therefore, it is necessary to break through routines and recruit a second tier of men and women to become involved in religious work and the daily ministry of the Armenian Church, Findikyan said. These members of the Diocese should act as apostles, mentors, teachers, and musicians, and work with pastors to build up the church, he continued.

To do this, he first suggested forming a network or fellowship of deacons, teaching them liturgical and musical skills and how to be “the right hand of the priest or bishop.” The traditions of Armenian sacred music could be revived along with regional and national fellowships. Programs that used to exist for teachers, like the Mardigian Institute, could be revived. Findikyan said he himself was deeply changed after going to one of those programs, which led him to think that he wanted to be a priest.

The Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA), he said, should not only be an annual gathering of 400 young people or a “holding-bin for college students.” It needs to be, he said, equipped and commissioned to be “our Diocese’s peer-based college ministry.” The Women’s Guild does great work, but, Findikyan said, “We need to commission our women to be doing more. We need to be using, energizing them, commissioning them, training them, to get out there to do God’s work that is specific and natural to women, and not so natural, perhaps, to a celibate, middle-aged man.”

Fr. Mesrop Barsamyan with Diocesan staff

All this is “equipping the saints for the work of ministry.”

Thirdly, in “knitting together the body in love” the divine liturgy is the centerpiece or heart of the life and identity of the church and the Christian calling. Yet attendance is declining throughout the Eastern Diocese. This is a complex matter and an emotional problem, Findikyan said, involving issues of faith, language, culture and economics, some of which are out of the control of the Diocesan community. To counter this situation, Findikyan suggested education through fresh ways and mentoring. Music in the parishes must be revived and strengthened.

As far as the issue of language, Findikyan said: “We are going to have to have some hard conversations about language, respectful, obedient always to our hierarchy and to the traditions of the Armenian Church. A lot of that is out of our jurisdiction but that does not mean that we cannot respectfully ask questions and discuss and learn. I think there is room for some movement there, and I think that’s a discussion that we can have prayerfully together.”

Findikyan said that the place to start in the overall process he wishes to initiate is through prayer and love for one another and “turning the page on old hashivs.” He suggested it was necessary to “break down those boundaries of culture and language and birthplace and politics and all of these things that should have no place in the body of Christ and to work together using the best that we have to offer to build up the body of Christ.” He asked that all the delegates take this message back home, exclaiming: “And woe to you if you do not go back to your parishes and share what we have talked about and your experiences and your tweets and fire up your local communities to follow onboard.”

Elections and Finances

The Assembly elected Lisa Esayian as chair (the first woman chair in Diocesan Assembly history), as well as Vice Chair Greg Saraydarian and secretary Laurie Bejoian. The Primate in his words of welcome on May 2 prepared the Diocesan delegates for his main message by asking them to act as agents of healing, purveyors of hope and disseminators of faith in the world.

Lisa Esayian

Elections took place on May 2 and 3 for members of the Diocesan Council, Board of Trustees and several Diocesan committees. The Council elections had to be held in two rounds. In the end, Fr. Vasken Kouzouian and Fr. Krikor Sabounjian were elected as clergy representatives, and Dn. Levon Altiparmakian, Roseanne Manoogian Attar and Lisa Kouzoujian as lay delegates. Sandra Shahinian was elected to the Board of Trustees.

Reports were given on the Diocesan Clergy Conference and Parish Council Chairs Meeting, and presentations were made on various operational issues on May 2 and 3. The Endowment Campaign Steering Committee, represented by Oscar Tatosian and Melanie Dadourian, explained that the goal of the committee was to raise $15 million and over $8 million has been raised from 75 families, beginning with the $3 million gift from Edward and Janet Mardigian in 2012. This fund is different than the Annual Appeal and its goal is to generate revenue to support annual operating expenses. Over the past 12 months, $112,000 was pledged. While pledges this year have been lower than last year, Dadourian said, possibly due to the debate over the project to monetize or develop the Diocesan complex, she declared that the presence of a new Primate has invigorated the campaign.

Findikyan reported that Fr. Mesrop Barsamyan, formerly Director of Ministries, has been appointed as Vicar of St. Vartan Cathedral (this position used to be called Dean); Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian as Diocesan Instructor of Scared Music, and Laurie Onanian as part time Director of Development.

Fr. Krikor Sabounjian in a separate session the next day reported on Diocesan financial development and the annual appeal that last year fell a little short but with Onanian now working on it, the appeal goal has been raised from around $750,000 to just under $1 million.

Gorky Collection and Cathedral Complex Plans

Esayian reported on behalf of the Diocesan Council on the status of the Diocesan Arshile Gorky collection. Outside counsel is being sought for advice on the management of art collections, including the costs of insuring the collection at full value. The Gulbenkian Museum, which at present holds the collection for the Diocese, does have it insured but not necessarily at full value. The Gulbenkian wishes to renegotiate the agreement with the Diocese for holding the collection as well as the conditions for loaning pieces elsewhere. Among the possibilities the Diocese may consider is lending some or all of it to Echmiadzin, which has requested this repeatedly, according to Esayian. At this point, it was said, it is too early to make any decisions by vote.

Diocesan Council Vice Chairman Paul Mardoian reported on the Diocesan Development Project, as Council Chairman James Kalustian, who presented this issue at last year’s assembly, could not be present due to the illness of his parents, including the hospitalization of his father. Mardoian declared that no sales contract existed for the Diocesan Complex. There was only a signed letter of intent to investigate the possibilities. Inaccurate things, he said, were reported in the press, but he also apologized on behalf of the Council for “errors in our communication to the Diocese.” He warned against paying attention to information in a recent email that was being circulated, though the origin of this email, its contents and errors were not specified.

One positive result from the process of working with real estate developer Scott Resnik, Mardoian said, was that it was possible to ensure that the Second Avenue subway will have a station across the street from the cathedral, not under the Diocesan facility.

Mardoian stressed that “there was only good intent” in the real estate negotiations and that “a sale is totally off the table.” He said that the Board of Trustees met with the Council last month which led to a joint process on repairs. Their cost and the costs of realizing Findikyan’s vision for the Diocese would be quantified and juxtaposed against assets available in order to then evaluate any project to develop the Diocesan property.

Janet Mardigian from the Board of Trustees confirmed that the two bodies would work together and, “back at square one,” start over to get more information from experts on such things as necessary structural and cosmetic changes for the cathedral complex and on offsite air rights. She promised that their reports would be thorough and they would be very transparent in everything they did. Mardoian chimed in, stressing that they were trying to do the best they could do and hoping that this was seen in a positive way.

During the question session, several people asked again specifically whether a decision had been made to monetize the air rights or develop the Diocesan property. Esayian explained that a joint meeting of the Diocesan Council and Board of Trustees must vote on the purchase or sale of the Diocesan property, while Mardoian said that no decision has been made on whether to monetize the Diocesan property. He said that everything is on the table, and repeated that all options are being considered because new revenue is needed to carry out Fr. Daniel’s vision.  In addition, the Diocesan staff is not given the benefits and raises it deserves and the parishes cannot be given more help because of the lack of funds at present.

Delegate Van Krikorian declared that people were voting against the plans to monetize the Diocesan property with their feet and pocket books. He stressed the symbolic importance of the Diocesan headquarters and declared that the Assembly should get a vote in the decision. Krikorian asked whether the Council believed this issue has to be handled in a different way. Mardoian replied that yes, the Council understands this and will bring the issue to the Assembly before there ever will be a deal signed and repeated that all the options are still being looked at.

Treasurer Attar in answer to a question on repairs said that the ultimate goal was a maintenance fund but unfortunately the Diocese financially barely has been breaking even every year.

Bylaws, Mission Parishes and the Role of Women

For a number of years now, the Diocesan Council has tried to get the new global bylaws prepared by Echmiadzin accepted by the Diocese. On the topic of a legal opinion on the validity of Diocesan vs. Echmiadzin’s global bylaws, including whether New York State law may override that of Echmiadzin, Antranig Garibian declared on behalf of the Council that the latter was now seeking an unbiased opinion and has DL Piper, a corporate law firm (Berge Setrakian of the Armenian General Benevolent Union is a partner there), looking at the bylaws. Garibian initially preferred to defer to the absent Diocesan Council chairman in response to a question as to whether the 2013 Diocesan bylaws or the global bylaws proposed by Echmiadzin was in force at present, but the next day clarified that it was the March 2013 Diocesan bylaws that at present were still in force, with one minor modification to Article 14B. The Council promised to send a copy of the 2013 bylaws with this amendment electronically to the delegates within a week.

Diocesan organizations and auxiliary committees presented their reports on May 3. The host committee for next year’s assembly, from St. Sarkis Armenian Church near Dallas, Texas, made a presentation, and St. Mark Armenian Church of Springfield, Mass. was chosen as the site of the 2021 assembly.

Fr. Findikyan announced that the approach to mission parishes as being changed. The new approach would start with a fulltime priest appointed by the Primate for a three-year program, in which local people initially pay a minimal amount which increases annually. Donors are being found to underwrite this approach.

Fr. Findikyan reported that in principal he supports increased participation of women serving in the church, and spoke twice briefly with the Catholicos of All Armenians on this, as well as with the Canadian and West Coast Primates, along with a vartabed studying this issue for the Supreme Council. He declared that “basically, this is a work in progress” because the Eastern Diocese does not have the full ability to make decisions, but he said he would support those studying this issue.

Fr. Daniel Findikyan

The Catholicos is in favor of young girls serving as acolytes, Fr. Findikyan said, but is cautious about it and has charged people to research it based on the traditions of the Armenian Church. At present, young boys, but not girls, may receive minor orders and Fr. Findikyan said that he is uncomfortable with this situation. He concluded, “This issue will be driven along to some extent by resolutions of this assembly, but relatively modestly. The more powerful force is going to be our own learning and dedication to our own ministry and prayer. If we as an Assembly can be praying for good and active ministries of men and women in our church, then I believe that together with God, he will open the doors for us… Unfortunately, it is not a push-button approach.”

Proposals

Among the important proposals voted on during the last day of the general session, on May 4, was a call for term limits for Diocesan Council members. The initial proposal was for a limit of two terms but this was modified to three terms, after which two years must pass before the individual can again hold office. This proposal was accepted and must pass again at next year’s assembly by majority vote to be valid.

Proposals on allowing telephonic or electronic communications for meetings of the Diocesan Council and Board of Trustees, and on requiring majority votes of each of the latter bodies separately to reach joint decisions passed, and must be approved by vote next assembly to become law.

Proposals on redefining membership of the Armenian Church and giving the Diocesan Assembly authority to sell or dispose of any interest in the Diocesan headquarters failed to pass.

 

 

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