What’s Wrong with the Armenian Church?

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What is wrong with the Armenian Church? That question begs a number of answers depending upon to whom the question is directed.

Many have been alienated from the church in general and from the Armenian Church in particular. Cynicism has eroded the foundations of the faith, driving many away from organized religion.

In the case of the Armenians, our Christian faith is intertwined with our ethnic consciousness so that when our identity is diluted, the Christian faith itself can drive the individual away from the Armenian Church.

Clergy in the Armenian Church have traditionally been bulwarks of knowledge, culture, wisdom and inspiration. Historically, serving the Armenian Church was considered a highly respectable position in society. It was only when many misfits and losers gravitated towards the ranks of the clergy, that those congregations, in time, realized that they have put too much faith in those men and have become alienated from the church. And since human nature, more often than not, forces the individual to look for scapegoats for their own failures, the first target of the criticism has become the church. That answer is so much easier than one that comes from self-reflection.

These are general observations about the shortcomings of the church and the parishioners who make up that church, for its failure to keep pace with the current developments of society.

All the above being endemic to the Armenian Church, there are also other reasons why the Armenian Church has been experiencing so many problems, which rightfully baffles its adherents.

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Historically, church leaders, based on the blind faith of the congregation, have built temporal castles for themselves, sometimes challenging the political establishment or royalty. King Pap, in the fourth century, rose against the clergy and expropriated their wealth. That is why Armenian historians, many of whom came from the ranks of the clergy, have maligned him. We see this dichotomy in our church history down to current times.

As the political parties emerged to shape the consciousness of the people, they certainly identified a power base in the church and they plotted to take over the church, late in the 19th century. But that struggle for control of the church took an ugly turn in the 20th century and its ramifications continue to this day.

The attempts by political parties to control the church impacted diasporan life heavily and divided the Armenian Church. Any Armenian in good conscience cannot vouch that the division in the Armenian Church is a healthy situation and enhances our struggle for survival as a viable community. We cannot heal the rift and unite the communities for our survival to achieve our most cherished goals until we identify the historic causes of this division.

It would have been the most rational solution had each group admitted its own responsibility and worked together towards healing the wounds. But we have not gotten to a point yet where we can stand up and admit our own shares in the division of the church, a division which spills over into the larger secular community.

Admittedly, for many, it would be a traumatic experience to revisit the times and acts which caused the division. Many believe ignorance is bliss. But there will be no healing until we are able to find the source of this cancer and rout it.

These days, it is very difficult to write about the causes of the division, because many people prefer to live in their comfort zones, even when that attitude may end in disaster. Also, those who preserve the memory, and once in while try to be history’s prompters, are maligned. Most prefer to blame the messenger rather than deal with the deadly message.

Those who are uninformed, misinformed or ill-informed, are innocent until the moment they decide not to face history and learn the facts about the church division, which gained diaspora-wide proportions in 1956. That is the date one of the hierarchical seats, namely the Catholicosate of Cilicia, was taken over by a political party through the election of a mild-mannered clergyman, Catholicos Zareh Payaslian, who was anointed contrary to the canons of the Armenian Church.

At that time, the Armenian Church had more than 50 bishops. None but two, Khoren Paroyan and Ghevont Chebeyan, volunteered to participate in the anointment of Catholicos Zareh. To comply with Armenian Church canons, a third bishop (Severios) was borrowed from the Assyrian Church.

One does not have to learn all the facts about the events of that period, but if he or she can answer one question, the legality of the takeover can be established; why were Lebanese Army tanks and armored vehicles surrounding the Antelias Cathedral if a popular election was taking place? That was a political takeover that came to amplify the church division extant in the US since the 1930s. Archbishop Ghevont Tourian, the primate at the time, was murdered in 1933, because he refused to obey the orders of the same party.

For the party which planned that murder, any person speaking of the event today is more evil that the murderers themselves.

Ever since these two incidents, the division in the church has been continuing and expanding.

The control over the dissident church by a political party had found a justification, or rather an excuse, that the Holy See at Echmiadzin was under communist rule. Therefore the diaspora churches supposedly had to come under the jurisdiction of Antelias, which in its turn has been controlled by the ARF since 1956.

The division still continues even after the fall of communism. What is the justification? The answer to this question was not even clear to Catholicos Karekin I, who left Antelias to ascend the Echmiadzin throne. When this writer visited the late Holiness in Echmiadzin to congratulate him on his election, he confided: “I was at the forefront of the campaign against Echmiadzin. But at the time, the Holy See was under Soviet rule. What is the justification now?”

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