A Unique Approach to Church Unity: Sharing

The Armenian community in North America has been hampered by an unnecessary and tragic division since 1933. For the first 23 years after the schism, many of the parishes were organized under the Diocese of America (later a western and Canadian dioceses were formed). The remainder of the churches remained “unaffiliated” until 1956, when they petitioned the Great House of Cilicia for affiliation and what became known as the Prelacy was formed. In the years that followed, a western and Canadian Prelacy were also formed. We should not judge our ancestors in those trying times. The events were tragic and created a rare dichotomy where conflict and growth were managed simultaneously. It was during these faithful times in the 50s and 60s that the North American communities experienced significant infrastructure expansion with many churches and centers. Both “sides” were filled with dedicated Armenian Christians. We should remind ourselves of that. Reunification was debated heavily in the 70s and the 80s, particularly in the eastern regions, but fell victim to special interests. My own view on the shameful division of our church has not changed for decades. I consider it to be embarrassing and counter to our claims of Christian values. How can we claim to be adherents to the teachings of our Lord, yet cannot find the will to overcome the obstacles to oneness?

While we wait (endlessly) for our leadership to do their job and bring us together, a new dynamic has emerged. Back in the 80s, I remember one of the debates taking place was whether to instantly unify and then address the challenges or have a period of “cooperation” to reacquaint ourselves with each other and build some level of trust. Regardless of the failures of that effort, the “cooperation” values did take hold. In nearly every community in the eastern region, local activity of engagement has been fruitful. It began many years ago with participation on joint activities such as Genocide commemorations or catastrophic events such as relief efforts for the earthquake of 1988. This continued with other moments such as the 1,700th anniversary of Armenia’s embracing of Christianity (2001) or the centennial anniversary of the Genocide (2015). Generally, our Catholicoi would sanction the cooperation and then return to “business as usual” never capitalizing on the goodwill to end this tragic state. Despite the lack of a sustainable approach, many of our local leaders facilitated the thaw with relationship building. When you build walls, as we have, relationships and trust take a back seat. We have all witnessed an era where local priests have established close relationships, and many lay people have built friendships. This has created an environment where supporting each other is a more natural state. 

A new dynamic slowly has emerged in our community. Rather than only being concerned about the corporate structure they are affiliated with (Diocese or Prelacy) or their own local parish, we experience a connection to the whole community. It is quite common to hear individuals talk about the greater community (i.e. Boston, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, etc.) and not simply their parish. This is fueled by truly broad community activity but also by the trusting relationships that have been formed as a result of the last decades of investment. Our emerging generation has been ahead of the curve as they grow into the decision making years. Most are ambivalent about the division and have expressed their Armenian and Christian identity by ignoring traditional boundaries. It is quite common in larger communities to see youth in both the AYF and ACYOA or to find diverse backgrounds from participants in the AGBU YP. Their social needs and limited commitment to the infrastructure of their parents has actually opened many new doors.

Recently, I noticed the early examples of a further cooperative state, one that includes sharing resources. Many of our parishes, Diocese or Prelacy, are experiencing declines in function. Whether that is manifested through church attendance, membership, youth programs or financial matters, the struggle is the new reality. The work to reverse this trend is complex and the subject of much activity and dialogue. What I find inspiring is that some have found a way to “pool resources” to service the needs of the community. There is a diocesan parish in Trumbull led by a priest that I deeply respect. He is the benchmark, in my view, in finding ways for people to identify with the Armenian church. A middle-aged man has emerged the last several years with remarkable devotion in this parish. He serves at the altar of our Lord and is also a diocesan delegate. While serving at Holy Ascension, he also travels frequently to the Prelacy church in New Britain to assist at the altar. When I see this type of selfless devotion to serve our church, I am convinced it will influence others. This admirable devotion should not be underestimated. We are conditioned to have loyalty to a parish. Historically, aside from tension, there has also been a competition between parishes. What a wonderful example of truly honoring “the church.” 

St. George Armenian Church – Hartford CT
A burned Holy Bible on the stairs leading to the main entrance of St. George, June 2. (Photo: St. George Armenian Church, Hartford, CT)

The northern Connecticut region is going through an interesting transformation. There are three Apostolic churches within less than half an hour. We have a diocesan parish in Hartford, a diocesan parish in New Britain and a Prelacy parish in New Britain. Each parish was recently blessed with a new priest. St. George in Hartford is led by Der Voski, a man I have met and am so impressed with his focus on Christian love. You may have read about an incident in the late spring when a Bible was found burnt on the steps of his parish. Der Voski publicly offered help and support to the individual in an act of love and forgiveness. Holy Resurrection is led by the newly ordained Der Haroutiun who was the subject of an earlier column and part of our new generation of American-born priests. Der Garabed of St. Stephen’s possesses the peaceful nature of a man of God and embraces his new vocation to serve the Lord and our church. What is particularly exciting is the relationship the three have formed and their approach to their respective ministries. They approach their roles as a collective responsibility to minister to the needs of the northern Connecticut Armenians, and there is plenty of work to go around for everyone. This has established a very natural level of cooperation that will benefit the faithful. In fact, they have sponsored several jointly held religious observations and have many more ideas. These folks are my heroes because in addition to honoring their parishes, they have figured out that by cooperating and not competing, they will all have a greater impact on bringing the mission of our church to this area. This is a situation worth watching and supporting. I believe that we may witness some special results in the coming years. It may help relieve concerns in smaller communities.

This mentality, based on Armenian Christian love, can help strengthen our church while our leaders avoid the issue of administrative unification. As the impact of secularism and assimilation takes a toll in our church, the infrastructure of priests, deacons, choir members and teachers is strained. Many churches are dealing with a “catch-22” and trying to recruit new members and maintain an effective educational system to offer those new members. How can each parish maintain a full and effective infrastructure of teachers and programming to meet the needs of their faithful? We are beginning to see the emergence of local retreats, educational programming and religious observations that are jointly sponsored and led by local leaders. This not only increases the effectiveness of their ministry but gives people hope and generates additional ideas.

My maternal grandfather was a founding member of the St. Stephen’s parish in New Britain in the late 1920s. It was one of the more contentious parish issues in 1933 as its ownership was settled in the courts. Soon after, the Holy Resurrection parish was established from those who were not affiliated with St. Stephan’s after the division. The original sanctuary parish was originally only a block or so away from St. Stephen’s on Tremont St. I remember my mom telling us we had many relatives who went to Holy Resurrection, but the environment was such during my youth that our paths did not cross. There was no animosity. How could there be with my generation? We simply never met. So sad. This past summer, I visited the Holy Resurrection parish with the honor of serving as Der Haroutiun’s godfather. It was there that I not only met a few of my cousins who are my mother’s generational peers, but many members of their extended families who are active in the parish. God has a plan for all of us. Now these parishes who lived through the difficult years are at the forefront of new thinking. Bishop Daniel believes a resurgence will happen. I do also. These leaders have a vision.

It is not new thinking. It is simply applying the love and devotion to our faith directly to the task at hand. Others refer to it as “walking the talk.” Putting our egos and past issues aside is a hallmark of Christianity. Thankfully the division did not alter the united theology of our church. There is something interesting happening in Connecticut and elsewhere. I hope that all communities look at their work not in the myopic view of their parish but rather as a collective partner with other parishes in that locale. This is a practical necessity and an important part of our faith. If we truly approach our work through the lens of the greater community we serve, we just might discover solutions to problems that have seemed chronic and now have newly discovered light.

    

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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4 Comments

  1. Stepan,
    Brilliant article and I fully agree. Attendance in most religions is in decline in the U.S. and is evident in the Armenian community as well. Unity is where our strength will be in the future because it will be necessary. Most members of today’s Armenian generation know little or nothing about what divided us in 1933 and that in my opinion is for the better. Time to move on, move up, and move together.

  2. The problem is that without putting the Bible (God’s word) first and have it be the only authority in our personal lives, there will always be divisions. The focus has to be for all of us to be one in the Spirit. Then and only then can we be united spiritually. If we do not read the Bible to hear God’s word and repent from our sins and trust in Jesus alone for our salvation and not of our works or following traditions for our justification/salvation and trust in HIM and His work alone and as a result become born again from above (of the Spirit), we will continue to follow the voice of our father, the devil who causes divisions, pride, corruption, greed, jealousy, etc. Once we make the decision to put our faith and trust in the finished work of Jesus and literally make him Lord and Savior of our lives specifically, we will finally hear and listen to the voice of God and produce fruit as a result of the work of the Spirit that is in those who make that choice. He is the one that changes our hearts and minds as we receive a new heart to replace our stony hearts and start our sanctifying process within our hearts. Surrendering to God is the only way. Then we, as the temples of the Holy Spirit, make up the actual body of Christ. The reason there are divisions from those that are the leaders is because they continue to choose to not hear the voice of God and not surrender to His will and repent/turn from going their own ways. Once the true gospel is preached and adhered to, change will happen. Because change happens from God who works in us to cleanse us of all sin as we become sanctified through obeying His Spirit which was only made possible by the shed blood of Jesus Christ (forgiveness and paying our debt) and His resurrection (eternal life for those who believe). Once the leaders accept the Bible as the final authority over our traditions, can change really take place. We need to allow God to rule and reign in our hearts and lives and over own wills. True repentance and surrender is the key. I pray this happens and I pray that those leaders who have been born again stand up and take action by not fearing man, but instead surrendering to God’s word to glorify His name and bring others to Christ as well and as a result, a true change within our personal lives and also the Armenian Church.

    • I think the tragedy is in not addressing the history of the schism, the basis of our Armenian Apostolic faith as an uniquely National Religion, and the escalating reality that as our Eastern & Western homeland is in potentially irrevocable turmoil, our focus is not on the concept of ‘church unity’ but on the Diasporan responsibility to pivot for a new gestalt ‘Armenia’ consciousness to engage the next generation beyond the regional dynamics in our local community.

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