An Opportunity Lost

Photo: St. Nersess Armenian Seminary

Armenians in the eastern U.S. are witnessing a unique “changing of the guards” in the leadership of the Apostolic Church. Both the Prelacy and the Diocese elected new spiritual leaders at their respective assemblies in May 2018. The Prelacy elected its vicar, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, while the Diocese chose a long serving son, Hayr Daniel Findikian. Both men are immensely qualified to lead the church with their humility, intellect and spirituality. The former, already a bishop in the church, was confirmed and elevated by Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia. The latter, currently a Vartabed, will be elevated to a bishop by Catholicos Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians later this spring. Both men, with renown credibility with the young generation, have created an air of excitement as they begin the next phase of their respective ministries. Father Daniel, who grew up in the Binghamton, New York parish, will become the first American-born Armenian to be consecrated a bishop and serve as Primate. This is a remarkable and worthy milestone in the evolution of the Armenian Diaspora.

Here’s the issue or, should I say, the opportunity. His elevation should be a highly visible event that serves as an instrument to inspire emerging and future generations. His elevation is a foregone conclusion. The question is whether this “once in a lifetime event” will be optimized for the faithful. Hayr Daniel was elected in early May 2018, yet his elevation will have taken a full year… currently scheduled for May 11, 2019 at Holy Etchmiadzin. Our leaders should be viewing this event from a perspective of how to inspire and energize the Diocese. My understanding is that the consecration was delayed due to the renovation of the Cathedral at Holy Etchmiadzin. Sounds reasonable? Well, how about conducting the elevation in New York City at St. Vartan’s Cathedral. As far as I know, there is no requirement to consecrate bishops at Holy Etchmiadzin. Hosting the consecration in New York City could have elevated the Primate months earlier and given access to thousands of those he will serve. Imagine the hundreds of perhaps thousands of young people who could have witnessed the elevation and proudly proclaimed years from now…. “I was there.” Think of the future and the scores of faithful who would be inspired to serve when witnessing such a beautiful event. All the youth from St. Nersess summer studies programs and the seminary who have been students of Hayr Daniel would be there to share in the joy. Why is it so difficult to understand the needs of the faithful? Why are our leaders so removed from these issues?

Too often we are told that we just don’t understand. Perhaps that’s the problem.. .we do understand.

Instead a few hundred will travel to Armenia. There will be no live stream. The rest of us get to watch a replay. Wonderful. Our leaders must think beyond the small space they apparently reside in. It is simply a matter of how you view leadership. To serve or to be served? I am sure there are a litany of excuses. Too often we are told that we just don’t understand. Perhaps that’s the problem.. .we do understand. We just have a different perspective. With the challenges we face, our objective should always be based on inclusion.

A secondary benefit would be the opportunity for our Vehapar to demonstrate incredible public sensitivity to an important US Diocese by coming to America and offering this gift. Let’s face it. Our church here in America is at a crossroad. On the one hand there are impressive programs happening at the parish and Diocesan level. However, they simply are not connecting to enough people. Our individual faith may grow but it does not necessarily equate to participation in the institution known as the Armenian Apostolic Church.

For many of us who are deeply committed to this venerable institution, we sometimes cannot see the “forest through the trees.” Many have left the Mother Church not always because of a crisis of faith. Quite often they have lost a connection with the institution. Particularly in the Western Diaspora where language, intermarriage and lack of a connection to their daily life have taken their toll. The numbers don’t lie. General membership, Sunday School attendance and church attendance have dwindled. The church has always been the center of the community. Its survival and prosperity are essential to the success of the diaspora. This is where leadership can make a difference. Leaders have two primary purposes: to articulate a vision and to inspire. They must go beyond the obvious, the easy path or “the way we always have it.”

Our individual faith may grow but it does not necessarily equate to participation in the institution known as the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Leaders have a responsibility to reach beyond to bring others to new heights. Our people need what I will refer to as “emotional experiences” that touch their hearts. Once that connection is made to the church, identity will be established and commitment soon follows. Not an easy task but we must never lower our expectations. The stakes are too high. Given the public perception and credibility issues of Karekin II, it would have been a “win-win” for all to witness this marvelous blessing in New York City. Instead, we are left to wonder what could have been. How long must we endure sub-optimizing? Left with the mixed feeling that it could have much better. Yes, they have been given the authority, but the “followers” have a responsibility to make their expectations—their very needs—clear. The hierarchical structure of the church does not require the faithful to be silent. It is quite the opposite. Silence can be misinterpreted as ambivalence. That will only create more separation between the leaders and those they serve.

The good news is that the sun will rise, and Fr. Daniel will be elevated. We rejoice in the consecration to bishop of such a fine clergyman as Fr. Daniel. Armenians, for the most part are very passive when it comes to the church. Many consider discussing topics such as this or other challenges the church faces as being “negative” or “disrespectful.” We must challenge ourselves to shift our thinking from a static church to a dynamic one. A dynamic church confronts it problems without fear that its mission will be compromised. It must believe that it will be enhanced. Of course, we all have different perspectives on what those changes or opportunities are, but imagine what a joyful institution the Armenian Church can be when the issues are debated and not the intentions of individuals. In today’s church, unfortunately, our inability to provide an effective forum or process to discuss our challenges enables some to simply walk away. Decline can be a silent process. We cannot assume that new immigrants will continually replenish our local parishes, thus providing the perception of parish vitality. Creating an exciting and fresh environment that provides the spiritual nourishment to the faithful according to the Armenian Church is a long term challenge in the diaspora. We must seek every opportunity to help build that identity.

This particular opportunity is less about the Primate and more about Vehapar and others in positions of authority to use that authority for the benefit of the faithful in their journey to find Christ and the Armenian Church. We will wait for the next opportunity with the hope and prayer that it is realized. In the meantime, I encourage all, with love in your heart, to work for a stronger Armenian Church.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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6 Comments

  1. This article raises important points but ignores what all Armenians who leave our Church say: it is more of a national institution than a religious one. That it focuses more on the nation than on the dogma. This of course has roots in loss of national independence for most of our history, but in 21st century America, where Armenian-Americans have access to all the world’s religions, the Armenian Church has to teach more theology and dogma. Otherwise more and more Armenians will become Protestants, Buddhists or whatever religion they feel brings them closer to God.

    • Well Said Moushetsi Azad – in addition to this as a devout Christian of Armenian origin residing in Sydney Australia I have not attended the Armenian Church for some time now due to the lack of inclusion , I love my Church don’t get me wrong but when you are shunned away as i have many times due to the fact my Armenian is not so great I have had to scour the the streets of Sydney to find the lonely oriental churches like the local Coptic church which i have attended now a few times to sit there in a house of GOD still not belonging but at least understanding the holy scripture as it is spoken in English.
      There is a great opportunity for the church in Sydney or the ones around the globe if they are willing to reach out to each Armenian household and bring that fire back to each family, our Church is beautiful our sermons even more. It dsont feel right when I have to light candles and huddle my family around me while I recite our holy Badarag each Sunday , even though my children love it they still need to know the Church is there for them !

    • Are you putting Protestants and Buddhists together at the same faith level? Protestants are Christians and believe in Devine God and the Holy Trinity and Buddhism is a man-made religion. Before you throwing them in the same pot, please read about occult religions.

  2. Great article I was there representing the prelacy ,you can see the delegates reaction that a change to right direction is coming ,I hope it happens for the good of our Churches

  3. I had the good fortune serving as acting director at diocese in 2015 during the 100th anniversary as well as signatory to the historic mass at national cathedral. We did a full 360 analysis of paying members and parishes. Fr. Daniel at the time was finding his place and respected him as a scholar. His challenge now is to be a spiritual leader beyond a theologian; which I hope time will allow him the well rounded experience. Most of us remember fondly poetic leadership of Primate T.M. As a NYC resident and 2nd to last chairman of diocesen parish, St. Gregory, a whole community of NYC residents have been lost (both votes and presence) with the diocese going back to 1990’s not to mention the rest of other parishes which actually can vote. We hope our new Vicar and Surpazan Hyre will recharge the spiritual experience. On May 18th the Diocesen Primate will return to St. Vartan for a function; so not all is lost where as our 2nd grand daughter will be baptized also in St. Vartan on May 19th.

  4. Thank you Mr. Piligian, you are so right ! The Consecration would have brought greater stature to St. Vartan as a Premier Cathedral in the number one city in the world. It would have elevated the stature of the rank of an “Armenian” Bishop within the clergy of the United States. It would have been an opportunity to coincide with the month of April and the commeration of the Genocide.. It would have provided Fr. Fidikian with greater publicity within the religious community participating at his elevation in St. Vartan’s Cathedral and the publicity and opportunity of participation by the congregation of the Eastern Diocese……Just a few of the benefits…..maybe next time.

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