Less Dividing, More Conquering in the Armenian Church

From Gndevank Monastery, Armenia (Photo: Flickr/Raffi Youredjian)

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.

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.

9 Comments

  1. How about we have the two churches unite back in to one church again to make up one diocese and the bishop. Then we will have the echmiadzene and the cicilia sides act as two different political parties in our orthodox church. Then every several years the parishes all over the world will vote for who is going to be the bishops and who shall be the Catholicos of the church. As well as wether the church should adopt ethic devirsity or swoch to English.

  2. Its also important for me to stress about we have a large minority of latinos in the L.A church who’s voice is un heard. The Armenian church must have a Spanish hour. As well as a month for tje children to recognize Mexican heratage.

  3. I have never felt that the Armenian Apostolic Church is divided. Surely there is a divide but that is adinistrative and has come about out of historical necessity. I dread the day when I will find out that the Catholicos of the Catholicosate of Cilicia has no more the jurisdiction he has in North America.

    For the proponents of one hierarchy in North of America, namely Etchmiadzin, or Cilican for that matter. I have a question. How will it enhance your spirituality? I cannot envision that it will in any way.

  4. I thought the best chance for Unification was with Karekin I. It was a short window while he was Catholics but it didn’t happen. He could have done it.

  5. Thank you for a well written and logical presentation. It reminds me a bit of Abraham Lincoln’s a house divided against itself cannot stand speech. The Armenian Church has an ancient and beautiful liturgy. It’s embedded in the very thread of the nation’s culture. Its preservation should, I think, be a major aspect of any change. I think Badarak should retain a certain air of mystery, tradition and religiousness to it. There should be something different to it. It should not become an ordinary and less mystical service in a local language.
    The internal division within the Armenian Apostolic Church need not continue for any religious reason. I agree with your analysis that it is counterproductive to a greater or lesser degree and serves no fundamental theological point. I think you’re correct when you picture it as civil or political division. I wold join you in the hope that two learned men of religion could find a way to overcome political and human issues and reunite the churches into one holy, unified and Apostolic Church.

  6. Stepan is to be admired for his dedication to our Armenian Christian Heritage, and for raising his voice for a most critical goal for the Armenian Church in the Diaspora. The benefits of restoring administrative and heirarchical order with the Armenian Church, especially here in N. America, have been well articulated by Stepan. However, Stepan falls short in identifying the current root causes of the roadbloacks to church unity.
    Stepan clearly cites the “political special interests” that undermined the unity negotiation in the 1980s, but takes the rear view perspective of “I leave it at that.” Sorry to surprise you, Stepan. But we must recognize the ARF still maintains an intimate relationship with the Prelacy, and without the consent of the Party, our Catholici can wave the flag of unity and visit each others churches for eternity, yet the pathway to church unity will remain blocked. While the ADL quite vocally positions itself as the defender of Etchmiadzin, and will not hesitate to expess concern about church unity based on they feel unity will impact Etchmiadzin and her dioceses, the party does not have the clout to exert a strong influence on the unification process.

    Stepan aptly points out the issue of cooperation and its conflicting dual role of helping to promote and discourage unity negotiations. In many communities accross America, there is essentially a seamless relationship between the Diocese and Prelacy parishes. Many may be temtped to say, “Look all is well right now. Why rock the boat?” Do please realize that the waving the flag of “cooperation” is regarded by many as simply a stalling tactic by those who do not wish to see a unified diocese.

    I maintan that the current siutation, a Prelacy and Diocese operating in the same geographical area, is truly unstable, and has the strong potential to ignite renewed tension and conflicts that can arise from pontifical visits and establishing new parishes.

    My recommendation is that Diocesan Assembly and the Prelaccy’s National Representative Assembly pass concurrent resolutions to restart unity negotiations that will lead to a unified diocese under the juridiction of Etchmiadzin with a “special recognition/respect” to Antelias, followed by obtaining the formal endorsement and blessing of our Catholici. When such powerful resolutions come from the voice of the faithful, our church leadership will surely listen.

    • Thank you Ara. My intent in saying “I’ll leave it at that” was to stay on point. The intent is to raise the interest and passion about unifying , which , in my view, has fallen into a dangerous ambivalence. There is no doubt that non-religious interests are influencing the situation. …both in the Prelacy and Diocese. The Prelacy has the issues you outlined witht the ARF and the Diocese suffers from additional issues……a control mentality that is counterproductive in Etchmiadzin and the lingering effects of a superiority complex. Both the Prelacy and The Diocese are equal contributors to the disunity and will have to be equal contributors to a solution.
      We all seem to be limited by a “we are all for it” but …….(followed by why the other “side” is the problem. I agree with your suggestion that both assemblies revive the issue but with a non-defensive,,, what will it take approach. The goal must be reunification of a wounded church…not protecting our respective positions. Thanks.

  7. Parev to all my Armenian Brothers and Sisters. My warmest praise to Stepan Piligian who has taken on a topic of monumental importance for our Armenian people here in the Western Hemisphere. Stepan has capsulated the situation which has lasted for 86 years and continuing. While some who are no longer here have condemned the assassination of Abp Levon Tourian as the greatest sin of mankind and those committing the sin will “burn in Hell on Earth forever”. Well There’s Good News and Bad News. First the Good News. Those who were brought to trial in an American Court, tried and found “guilty” were sentenced to long prison terms. There names, Sarkisian and Leylegian. They served their time in the American court of Law and Justice. They were released in 1957 by Gov Lehman based on the pursuit of one of my mentors, Jack Chadrjian. Both were ill when they were released and died within a few years of their being set free in 1957. All of 22 years. The Bad News!
    Here’s the Bad News. The split between the two church communities has gone on for 86 years. The only aspect that Armenians can be proud of is their stubbornness to stay separated. And the irony to create alternate ecclesiastic ties to survive and modestly grow. Well one might say, the Armenian zeal to survive comes through again. Yes, it’s true that side harboring those condemned for the murder of Abp Tourian are continuing their activities of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Catholic Church here in America displaying the Armenian Tri-Color every Sunday since 1918. Remember that this is the Bad News side. While the Armenian Church continued to stagger through the depression in America through the 1930’s and World War 2, the Armenian Churches in America then woke-up after 1945. Armenian American boys fought side-by-side in Europe and the Pacific. And they became attached because there was no time for the issues daunting-haunting the Armenian-American church community[s]. They now returned, married, birthed children, wanted to perpetuate their identity. Was it 100%? No. But Thank God the majority stayed in the “family”. So now the Armenian-American community enjoyed a rebirth from within. Stepan Piligian is one of those. There are thousands. Thank God.
    Are they like Stepan? Well maybe, just maybe. What would you say? Remember this is the Bad News segment. As the Armenian service men returned, married, bore children the issue of what church they belong played its ugly hand. Yes, what church did you or do you attend played its hand. He’s not good, he belongs to those. She’s from the “other side”. So the struggle continued through two generations. I was born in the first generation pre-war [1935]. My family was in America, started in 1925. Father, Kazar captured in Bulgaria in 1911 and liberated by the Bulgarians because he was a laborer in the Turkish Army. The Bulgarians freed him and told him not to return to Turkey. Things were bad in the home land of Western Armenia. I became fully conscious of the split in the Armenian-American community from early age. Nine years old, I enrolled in the Levon Touryan Armenian school in Brooklyn. It had no political meaning to me, then. When I graduated at 16, [I was a member in the Armenian Youth Federation at 13] I spoke, read and write Armenian. My graduation speech focused on “freeing of Armenia”. I felt then, and continue to believe, I was born in the right place and would take my place to help to liberate my people and “get back what was unjustly taken from us”. Fast forward, where are we headed? There remains people in both factions of the North American Armenian community who perpetuate the “division” of our people. Do you want me to name some? You are welcome to contact me. Most important remember we are “all” Armenian when we consciously admit we are Armenian and live everyday, everyway the wonderful gift of life that our parents bestowed upon us in their struggle for life and the continuation of our Armenian People. The Bad News wins if you isolate yourself.
    The Good News wins when you join all your brethren. God Bless America! God Bless the Armenians here and abroad! All of us have a mission in our communities. Share it. Love it. And remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice here in America and all your relative people regardless of their political beliefs or persuasions live and breathe as loving Armenians first and foremost. Gehtzeh Haiasdan! Abreek Haiehr!

  8. We would all be wiser in listening to Armen Boyadjian. He is one of the finest examples of a true man of faith and prince of the Armenian Church. Armen was an early adopter of the cause of unity in our diocese and has witnessed the peaks and valleys
    of this arduous journeys. Personally, I will always be indebted to men like Armen, my father Carnig and Mousegh Haroutunian for mentoring me in my youth on church affairs. It was through these men that I discovered what a true love of the Armenian Church
    was like. They belonged to the Prelacy but were not partisan. They longed for the natural state of unity. The criticism
    they received showed me that these warriors were(are) the type of leadership we need to sustain us. Love in their heart
    and the will and courage to compliment it.
    We must shed ourselves of artificial barriers , superficial concepts and focus on what our ancestors thought of
    in 1891 with the first parish in Worcester and the diocese a few years later……. to worship our Lord according to the traditions
    of the Armenian Church. The rest are obstacles we must shed.
    Armen ….. thank you and God bless you.

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