Armenian Church Can Improve by Changing Marriage Rules for Priests

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By Taleen Postian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

When becoming an Armenian priest, two paths are open to men who graduate from the seminary. One is to become a Der Hayr, a priest of a parish who must get married before he is ordained. The second is to work towards becoming a Hayr Soorp and remain celibate. This separation of clergy roles is currently absolute and unyielding, but is not based on any biblical canon or historical authority. It is a bureaucratic invention, one that has hurt more than it helped, and should ultimately be overturned.

Much potential is lost in the current order of clerical advancement. Der Hayrs, or ordained theologians who wish to be parish priests, must wait to follow their religious calling until they have found a spouse and can never remarry. Hayr Soorps, including Bishops, Patriarchs and Catholicoses, on the other hand, are never allowed to marry nor have children. This is stated in former Patriarch of Constantinople Malachia Ormanian’s The Church of Armenia, delineating “the regular clergy, who are celibate, and the married secular clergy… it is absolutely necessary that marriage should precede their ordination to the diaconate” (Ormanian 142). These regulations make it more difficult for those who wish to serve the community. For the person who feels a call to faith but is already married, there is only one path for them to take, no matter if their talents would be better suited for the position of Hayr Soorp. Alternatively, if a priest wishes to have a family and a spouse, their future in the church is set, with no chance for advancement nor change in their role.

I propose a change to the current Armenian church’s clergy hierarchy. Der Hayrs, married or not, should be eligible for ordination as Hayr Soorps, with their change in station decided by their work and skills, not their level of celibacy. And vice versa, unmarried priests should be allowed to be Der Hayrs, with the opportunity to work for a single parish.

An example of the failings of this system is shown through the career of Khrimyan Hayrig, Catholicos from 1890 to 1910 and considered one of the most well respected and effective Catholicoses, evidenced by the fact that he was given the name Hayrig or father. He originally was a Der Hayr with a wife and child. Sadly, his family died and he became eligible to become a Hayr Soorp. Once he did, he was allowed to fully realize his talent for helping the Armenian people, representing them on a global scale. His work was immortalized in his famous “Iron Ladle.” The life of Khrimyan Hayrig is demonstrative of the potential waste of talent that exists within the current clergy hierarchical framework. Do we as a people have to, god forbid, wait for someone’s family to pass away to feel the full effects of their leadership?

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This solution also addresses the common complaint of the American-Armenian parishioner that the Catholicos is out of touch with the problems of the average churchgoer. This is seen as a symptom of his duties, which require the Catholicos to travel frequently to different parishes and spend minimal time with individual parishioners. By allowing parish priests to become bishops, archbishops and Catholicoses, we are more likely to have a Hayr Soorp who has the background necessary to be a man of the people and work on their behalf.

There are in fact no historical or religious regulations that support our current delineations of priesthood. As Ormanian states, “The married priest may conduct the duties of a vicariate in the event of a vacancy, but he is not allowed to be a candidate for the doctorate, nor for the dignity of the episcopate unless he enters the ranks of the celibate clergy after widowerhood. Though this restriction has in our time acquired the force of law, it is altogether unsupported by canonical weight or old-established authority” (Ormanian 142). He gives examples of how historically, this strict division did not exist, “formerly the bishops were recruited from among the archpriests” (Ormanian 142). This provides a historical precedent for my proposed alteration to clergy mobility. Ormanian bluntly continues, “There is nothing, therefore, to prevent the present custom, prevalent though it be, from being superseded by the usages of the primitive Church, and access to the high ecclesiastical dignities being thrown open to the married clergy,” even going so far to provide benefits of this switch, opining, “such a course would be highly beneficial to the nation for the married clergy would escape from a position of inferiority which is in no way justified… By enlarging the field for promotion, the cultured portion of the nation would no longer hesitate to enter the ranks of the married clergy.”

Another example of a bishop, and later Catholicos, who did not follow our current expectations of high-ranking clergy and whose historical and positive impact on the church was replicated by his offspring is St. Gregory the Enlightener. One of the main reasons people don’t want priests with wives or children rising to Hayr Soorp roles is because it is perceived that they will be unable to give their full attention to either their family or the church. This was not the case with St. Gregory. He was able to raise two sons while also raising Armenia to be the first Christian nation as its first Catholicos. The Catholicos’ first son, Aristakes, later became the head of the Armenian Church and represented it at the council of Nicea, according to the histories of the historian Agathangelos. After Aristakes died, he was succeeded as Catholicos by his brother, Vrtanes. Vrtanes was also married and had children after becoming Catholicos, another example of effective leadership without celibacy. Vrtanes’ sons went on to serve the church, with his younger son, Yusik, becoming Catholicos (Vemkar).

The church is not an unchanging institution, as Ormanian states, “In the essentially democratic constitution of the Armenian Church… her clergy do not form a separate class. The nation and the Church are one and the same thing.”

The clergy members of the Armenian church are pillars of our communities. It is essential that they remain connected to the individual parishes they serve. Instituting clerical mobility within the church’s leadership is one way to ensure this continued connection. The historical precedent for this type of system was successful and there are no biblical or religious laws forbidding such a change. The time is now for us to build better relationships across our Armenian church community.

(Taleen Postian is a writer and student at Villanova University studying political science and art history. She writes about the Armenian art world. She is a former intern at the Armenian Mirror-Spectator. You can reach her at taleen.postian@gmail.com.)

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