Historic Ordination: Tehran Prelacy of the Armenian Church Ordains Deaconess

Archbishop Sarkissian: 'What I have done is in conformity with the Tradition of the Church and nothing else'

The Prelate of the Prelacy of Tehran (under the jurisdiction of the Catholicosate of Cilicia) ordained a young woman as a deaconess in Tehran’s St. Sarkis Mother Church on Sept. 25, 2017. Even though the office of deaconess has existed in Armenian Church convents for centuries, this was a historic first: It is the first time that a lay woman, not a nun, was ordained a “parish deacon.”

Twenty-four-year-old Ani-Kristi Manvelian was ordained on Sept. 25, 2017 (Photo: MEHR/Iman Hamikhah)

Twenty-four-year-old Ani-Kristi Manvelian, an anesthesiologist by profession, was ordained—along with Mayis Mateosian—by Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian, Primate of the Prelacy of Tehran.

“What I have done is in conformity with the tradition of the Church and nothing else,” said Archbishop Sarkissian. This was his personal initiative as prelate in order, as he explained, “to revitalize the participation of women also in our church’s liturgical life,” adding, “do not be surprised, a woman could also become a servant of the Holy Altar.”

Deaconess Ani-Kristi has been involved in the life of the church in Tehran since she was young. She used to perform the duties of an acolyte (dpir) during church services, such as reading the psalms and carrying the ceremonial candle.

In explaining the purpose of the ordination, Archbishop Sarkissian said: “Today, our Church is confronting the imperative of self-examination and self-critique. It is imperative to rejuvenate the participation of the people in the social, educational, and service spheres of the Church. It is our deep conviction that the active participation of women in the life of our Church would allow Armenian women to be involved more enthusiastically and vigorously, and would allow them to be connected and engaged. They would provide dedicated and loving service [to the people]. The deaconess, no doubt, would also be a spiritual and church-dedicated mother, educator, and why not, a model woman through her example. It is with this deep conviction that we are performing this ordination, with the hope that we are neither the first nor the last to do it.”

According to the Primate, parish priests in Tehran are watchful and keen to recruit more women who fit the profile of prospective deaconesses.

What is special and novel about Deaconess Ani-Kristi Manvelian’s ordination is that she is a “parish” deacon—that is, she is not a member of a convent or a religious order, like the Kalfayan Sisters in Istanbul or Gayanyants Sisters at Birds Nest in Jibeil, Lebanon, who have a few sisters among their ranks and are not ordained deaconesses.

Like her male counterparts in the Armenian Church, if and when Deaconess Ani-Kristi marries she will continue to serve as a deaconess.

Deaconesses have been part of the Christian tradition from the early years of the faith. There are numerous references in the Epistles and early Church writings.

In the Armenian Church tradition, the development of the office of female diaconate is divided into four historical periods according to Fr. Abel Oghlukian, the author of a study on the subject: 4th-8th centuries in Greater Armenia; 9th-11th centuries in Eastern and Cilician Armenia, where the term “deaconess” is included in the book of ordination (Մաշտոց); 12th century and on, where there are “literary references and rites for the ordination of deaconesses in liturgical texts in Cilicia and eastern Armenia; and the 17th century renewal of female diaconate.

The last ordained monastic deaconess in the Armenian Church was Sister Hripsime Sasounian, in Istanbul. The late Patriarch Shnork Kalustian of Constantinople ordained Sister Hripsime of Kalfayan Sisters (established in 1866) as a deaconess in 1982, using the canon of ordination used for male deacons (Dzernadrutian Mashtots). Damascus-born Deaconess Hripsime was 54 years old at the time. She passed away in 2007.

In North America, Seta Simonian Atamian was the first adult women ordained as an acolyte (dpir), a lower rank, by Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian of the Western Diocese in 1984 at St. Andrew Armenian Church, in Cupertino, Calif. However, when in 1986 she moved to the East Coast of the United States, she was not allowed by the local diocese to serve on the altar in the Armenian Church.

Even as this is a most welcome step by Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian and the Diocese of Tehran (under the jurisdiction of the Catholicosate of Cilicia), the Armenian Apostolic Church has yet to formally restore the office of female diaconate.

Today the question is how to revive the female diaconate for the pastoral life of local parishes rather than in monastic settings or convents, which are virtually nonexistent as viable institutions.

Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian is a scholar at University of Oxford.

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Hratch Tchilingirian

Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian is an intellectual entrepreneur and an activist sociologist. In recent years he has drawn attention to the plight of minorities and Christian communities in the Middle East, especially in academic and policy-making circles. As a public intellectual, his research, thinking and projects aim to make heritage identity, culture and language a living experience, especially in diasporic life. Following his PhD at the London School of Economics, he was director of research on Eurasia and lecturer at Cambridge University’s business school (2003-2012). Since 2012, he is an Associate of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at University of Oxford. He has lectured internationally and is the author of numerous studies and publications (www.hratch.info). Dr. Tchilingirian has held executive positions in academic institutions and charitable organizations and has served communities in various capacities and leadership positions in the United States and the United Kingdom. He remains deeply engaged in community life and takes active part in civic and professional projects.

9 Comments

  1. This initiative should be further institutionalized and embraced by the upcoming National Ecclesiastical Assembly when it convenes in Holy Etchmiadzin.

  2. “For as many as you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28)

    Thank you, Archdeacon Dr. Tchilingirian, for this excellent article, and for spreading the Good News of the ordination of Deacon Ani-Kristi Manvelian. The position of “deacon” is indeed of Apostolic origin, and the Church of Armenia has adhered to the words of Paul the Apostle never to discriminate between male and female, especially those who have been baptized into Christ, and who fervently choose to serve in the “diakonia” of the Holy Church.

    Deacon Manvelian is lovingly welcomed!

    In addition to the excellent study by Rev. Dr. Abel Oghlukian which you have cited, I would like to refer the readers to the important scholarly works of Dr. Roberta R. Ervine and likewise our esteemed “Armenian Weekly” contributor, Knarik O. Meneshian. Both of these ladies have prepared detailed histories regarding the position of women deacons in the Church of Armenia, and continue to research the important ministry of women deacons as our Holy Church addresses the ecclesiastical needs of the 21st century.

    As a note, Classical Armenian does not indicate gender, and so the title “Sargavak” is equally applicable to a man as to a woman. In Church history, a Deacon – whether male or female – is an ordained and duly recognized minister in the hierarchy. In subtle contrast, a “deaconess” is a female acolyte with limited functions who does not receive the laying-on of hand, but is merely blessed. Deacon Manvelian has received the Grace of the Holy Spirit through the episcopal laying-on of hand by His Eminence Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian, has the right to offer incense, to proclaim the Holy Gospel, and to present the Offertory. As such, she rightfully should be addressed as “Reverend Deacon”.

    We join in celebrating the ordination of Deacon Manvelian, and likewise raise up our prayers that many more Armenian women might answer the Great Calling, and be found worthy of the Diaconate. The Church of Armenia both requires and is grateful for all who come to serve: “The harvest is truly plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that He will send forth labourers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38; Luke 10:2).

    “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)

    Blessings upon Deacon Ani-Kristi and The Manvelian Family.

    [I have also written several research pieces on the Diaconate in the Church of Armenia, including the important position of women deacons.]

  3. Thanks be to God. May his blessings fall upon the Deaconess and the Archbishop. The time has come to renew our Church with women in service to God and the Faithful.

  4. I am delighted to read this. Abreek! I am glad to see that the Armenian church is trying to catch up with modern times. Let’s raise our sons and daughters with the same opportunities.

  5. This is a very unfortunate development. With all due respect, His Eminence Archbishop Sebouh Sarkisian overstepped his authority. As Mr. Tchilingirian stated in his article “It is the first time that a lay woman, not a nun, was ordained a parish deacon.” The Armenian Apostolic Church is comprised of its two catholicosates and two patriarchates. Liturgical or ecclesiastical matters of this magnitude require the approval of the church hierarchy as a whole. Consequently, the ordination of this young lady should be declared null and void.

  6. It is indeed wonderful to see this step taken in ordaining a woman in the Armenian Church, and to learn of the witness there of the office of deaconess as historical and valid for ordination.

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