Our church has an “elephant in the room.” In fact, we probably have an entire herd, but I am referring to the lingering division in the Apostolic Church. Imagine that…almost 86 years and no solution! Catholicoi have come and gone. Primates and Prelates have been elected, re-elected and retired…still status quo. Generations have passed, to the point where I would say that a majority of Armenians don’t understand the details of the split; they just understand its impact. The separation…the stereotypes…the redundancy…the financial waste and of course the sin of a Christian institution founded on love and forgiveness being unable to fully apply those principles to move forward.
It is remarkably sad that we are in 2019 and we seem to have settled into a “comfort zone.” In the 1980s, we were close. There was agreement on the framework of unifying the dioceses. The Diocese would be under Holy Etchmiadzin, a special relationship would be established with the Great House of Cilicia and a period of “cooperation” would be followed by a United Assembly to elect a new Primate. It sounded great until the execution was scuttled by political special interests. I will leave it at that. The past is the past…all we can do is learn from it.
These days, everyone gets along great. Well, reasonably. We are like a separated couple that is publicly together for special occasions or even on a daily basis, but at the end of the day goes back to living in separate homes. Our children don’t care about 1933 or 1956. They are emotionally detached from that period. They do care about the quality of their lives as Armenian Christians. And they are our future (also the present). Today’s youth want to connect with each other without constraints. Thankfully, the “cooperation” aspect of the old unity agreement has done well. Priestly relationships have blossomed. Joint ventures are happening at local levels everywhere. Our kids join AYF or ACYOA together. Yes it has improved…as some of my colleagues who urge patience have suggested to me. Perhaps the cooperation has gone too well? Has it suppressed our shame over the division, but dampened our passion for the most impactful aspect…one Diocese? Have we let our leaders off the hook?
Several years ago Catholicos Karekin II made a pontifical visit to the Eastern Diocese. At the conclusion of the visit, he presided over a “town hall” style meeting with all the parishes in New England. Present were the priests, parish council members and Diocesan delegates of all the parishes from New England. After several polite questions, one of the parishes asked why the Vehapar was not more active in easing the pain in the American Diocese caused by our disunity. The question was expected by everyone; his response was not. With no preface, our Vehapar declared that he did not feel that this was an issue, and he encouraged the Diocese to bring this to his attention if we felt so inclined. The audience was stunned. Several individuals voiced their displeasure with his shallow response. A few left. It was a clear example that our leadership does not view it as a priority. Our pain is irrelevant in the power grid of today’s church. Perhaps our “cooperation” has given our leaders an excuse.
The Vehapar’s response didn’t discourage me; it actually had the opposite effect. This is our church and our children’s future. In 2015, we all experienced the “unity” of our church on full display at the Washington, D.C. Badarak with both Catholicoi presiding. The ultimate unity happened when priests from both the Diocese and the Prelacy offered the Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Many in attendance had never seen nor heard Catholicos Aram I and were very impressed. After that weekend, Aram I embarked on a pastoral visit to Prelacy churches. During his tour, I thought it would be an incredible gesture of unity if he was invited to conduct a Hrasapar service at a Diocesan church. What a beautiful example of spiritual bonding that would take all of a half hour. I suggested the idea to members of both the Prelacy and the Diocese. I suggested the same when Karekin II was here upon his invitation to a Prelacy church.
Of course, we understand the issues of “protocol,” but the fact is that no one on either “side” had the courage to do what we all know would have been right. Our passive postures are alarming. There is no risk taking. It is almost as if our leaders believe the status quo is acceptable. It is difficult to accept “business as usual” after the spiritual unity in Washington and elsewhere. Have we no shame? How can we expect to attract a new generation when we tolerate such hypocrisy? Our church must realize that it needs to earn respect; it is not a generational inheritance. Our faith bonds us with God…not necessarily with the church. Meanwhile, we continue to lose people at an alarming rate.
Our leaders try to rationalize their ambivalence by telling us how complicated unity is and how progress takes time. We also know that special interests with power have worked to prevent action. If those interests do not work for making the Armenian church an inviting path for our relationship with God, then it is time we take back our church…or we risk losing it. It is our choice. Apparently the disgrace of disunity has not created sufficient will to end the insanity. Well perhaps the economics will.
Our faith bonds us with God…not necessarily with the church.
Every year, each “side” holds an annual Assembly. The most popular break out groups are not youth ministries or Christian education, but the finances. Both diocese are struggling with their respective budgets. It would seem the amount of redundancy would help that problem immensely and allow for new investments to help parishes. The Diocesan complex on 2nd Avenue and the Prelacy facility on 39th are worth millions. Consolidating would free up millions in real estate and redundant staffing. It is strangely ironic that our passion for finances has not connected to the opportunity presented through unity. If we fear the power shift of unity, then we should fear decline more…because we are currently experiencing it. We are no longer in a growth mode. The numbers don’t lie when you look at due paying members, Sunday School registration or Badarak attendance. It should pain us all to see large parishes that once had 200 Sunday school students now have half of that. Likewise, many small communities are struggling to survive with both finances and participation. The problems of the Prelacy and Diocese are the same. To solve these problems, we need to collaborate in solutions at the parish level and stop wasting millions in redundancy and “corporate” activities.
This problem can only be solved at the top. The parishes have done their job by opening the doors of cooperation and respect. Where are our leaders? How much pressure does the Executive Council or the Diocesan Council put on their respective Vehapars to do something? Personally, I am tired of the two Vehapars meeting for photo-ops, but without real output. No thank you. Please discuss the issues of our church (such as women, intermarriage and jurisdictional reconciliation) and use the authority you have been granted.
I believe that our problems are connected to the lack of vision. Is oneness, in a truly natural state where our church confronts its challenges and prospers, in their view of the future? Have the needs of our church been subordinated to the allure of maintaining power? If this is true, then it is our responsibility to remind them, continuously and with conviction, until these issues are addressed. We must not lose faith. Every day, I discover more of the beauty and incredible depth of our church. Limiting its impact would be a tragedy that we must avoid. Our church must grow… not remain static. The path ahead will be difficult, but the reward will be the prosperity of our beloved Holy Armenian Apostolic Church.