Isn’t it amazing how the winds of advocacy can change in four years? In 2018, the Armenian church in the eastern region of the United States was in a state of excitement as two exemplary clergymen were elected to the position of Primate of the Eastern Diocese (Etchmiadzin) and Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy (Antelias). Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, a beloved clergyman, was recently re-elected at the Prelacy’s National Representative Assembly in Philadelphia. Bishop Daniel Findikyan, however, was defeated in a relatively close election by Rev. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan, who heads the ministries at the Diocese and was formerly the dean of Gevorkian Seminary at Holy Etchmiadzin. In an almost unprecedented move, a sitting Primate—only one term into his tenure—lost an election. History tells us that this is a rare occurrence. For the previous 52 years before Bishop Daniel, there were only two Primates (Archbishop Khajag for 28 years and Patriarch Torkom Manoogian of blessed memory for 24 years prior to his election as Patriarch of Jerusalem). One has to be in the elder generation to remember an election that unseated an incumbent. The younger generation has been particularly drawn to Bishop Daniel with his spiritual leadership and long history of teaching at St. Nersess Seminary in addition to the popular summer studies programs. He is the first American-born bishop who served as primate and grew up in a family with devoted parents and whose mother was not Armenian. The feeling in 2018 was, given his credibility with the youth, his unique upbringing, his scholarly background and unique communication skills, that he would be very effective with a number of important demographics in the American diocese. He was elected knowing that he had never served in a parish, was a renowned teacher, was not focused on the politics of church life and did not seek the job. Four years later, with well over half of his time in office clouded by the COVID-19 pandemic, he was relieved of his role through the electoral process of our church. The diverse opinions created by this event merit an assessment of some of the possible causes and a discussion surrounding the challenges for the new Primate Hayr Mesrop Parsamyan.
The question remains: how does a sitting primate only one term into his tenure with the excitement generated upon his election and subsequent elevation lose an election in an unprecedented manner? Attempting to answer that question will require delving into some uncomfortable realities about how we support or, at times, undermine our elected leaders. Let’s begin with the nomination process. According to the bylaws, there must be three celibate clergy on the ballot approved by the Vehapar. According to public commentary and other sources, the Diocesan Council approached Hayr Mesrop to place his name on the ballot. Although soliciting candidates is appropriate, it is uncommon to seek the candidacy of a viable candidate while the sitting incumbent runs for re-election. The usual protocol is to have two names of qualified candidates who are perceived as not electable. The placing of Hayr Mesrop’s name was an indication of opposition to Bishop Daniel’s tenure. Actually, his return to the diocese from Etchmiadzin was perhaps an indicator. Apparently, there was enough opposition on the Diocesan Council to Bishop Daniel that a viable candidate was approached. The alternative (Hayr Mesrop) is from Armenia and has served this diocese on two occasions with a short stint in between as dean of the Gevorkian Theological Seminary. He returned to this diocese to assume the head of ministries position reporting to the primate. Our diocese has many wonderful priests from Holy Etchmiadzin. I know many of them personally, and they are fine clergymen. They have a strong relationship with Etchmiadzin, which is natural given the origin of their birth and education. It is apparent that a significant number of clergy from Armenia and their lay supporters opted to support Hayr Mesrop.
Our Vehapar in Holy Etchmiadzin places a strong value on loyalty and control. These priests have been an asset to the diocese, but they have a special relationship with the Holy See as it was the Vehapar who sent them to America. The connection does not have to be negative to be impactful. The common bond of Armenia is strong. The election results seem to be a “perfect storm” of those opposing Bishop Daniel based on his vision and management and the Etchmiadzin connection. In addition, it is unlikely that a sitting bishop can be defeated without some type of campaign to organize an opposition. There have been those who have resisted the Primate for several years. I have repeatedly heard absurd statements about how he is “too religious.” This, of course, is a not-so-veiled reference to the amount of heritage or ethnic programming he emphasized. The conflict has been there long before Bishop Daniel, but let me say that it is a sad state when we think our spiritual leader is too religious. I have come to know Bishop Daniel over the last several years, and I find his vision inspiring. The Armenian church has lost ground in the last decades not because of a lack of emphasis on our ethnic nature, but because we have drifted from the teachings of the church on faith. This is grossly misunderstood by those who oppose it in shallow overtones. It is my prayer that the new Primate continue to make Christ the center of the church according to the inspiring traditions of the Armenian church. If we do that effectively, there is no conflict between faith and ethnicity.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the delegates duly elected a new primate. Conflict is not unusual. It was only eight years ago that there was an ugly contested election between Archbishop Khajag, the Primate and Archbishop Vicken, the legate. Elections are full of campaigns and sometimes become far too personal. What remains for Hayr Mesrop is the daunting task of leading a fractured diocese. His immediate task is to rally the diocese behind a vision that will capture the spirit of the faithful. We need to move beyond the results of the election and focus on the mission of the church. This will require the faithful to place their trust in his hands. When new leaders are elected, particularly in a church, it is tragic that they are not given the opportunity to truly lead. Bishop Daniel was not fully afforded that opportunity. We all heard the gossiping opposition as early as four years ago. We must never make that mistake again. The open question for Hayr Mesrop is whether he will be his own man and lead the diocese with confidence. Given his youth, relationship with Etchmiadzin and the control values in our church hierarchy today, this is a legitimate question. It should be pointed out that no one is questioning the primacy of Holy Etchmiadzin over its diocese in the eastern United States. The matter is more related to empowering the primate to fully perform his duties according to the canons and traditions of our church. If Hayr Mesrop leads with a vision of growth and inclusion for this diocese, he will quickly earn the respect of those watching at this point. That clock starts now, and the faithful await his leadership. This is a critical time for the church in America. We are behind the curve and have no time for divisive squabbles. Those who advocated for Bishop Daniel should not act like many of those who opposed him four years ago. If we don’t rally around a unifying vision, the challenge will only become more daunting.
Armenians have a way of patronizing leaders while remaining unsupportive privately. We prefer to criticize in safe peer groups. When Bishop Daniel was elected, it was clear he had limited administrative experience with parishes but that he possessed an intellect capable of inspiring the faithful and had built a sustainable credible presence with the teenage and young adult community. I believe that when we elect a leader, they must provide the vision and motivation to build. As followers, it is our responsibility to support that vision and garner the leaders required to make progress. It is my view that Bishop Daniel, like many of our leaders here in America, was not given that window of support. The election is over, however, and the confirmation by the Vehapar has been announced. I pray for the success of Hayr Mesrop’s ministry as primate. I also pray for the continued ministry of Bishop Daniel. Many Armenians in the diocese are waiting for Hayr Mesrop’s vision for the diocese and his priorities. He is not well known by the rank and file. Many who did not vote for him and others who may have are anxious to know that he will be a strong leader of this diocese, who will of course respect the primacy of Holy Etchmiadzin but also advocate for the needs of a wounded Eastern Diocese. Our church needs leaders who will connect with the needs of the parishes, their faithful parishioners and the thousands who have left. There are times in the life of the Primate that he can become insulated from the “on the ground” reality. When a primate visits a parish, it may be the one week when the pews are full, the choir is plentiful and the youth are everywhere. This is not representative. How about a few unannounced visits to some parishes? Too many filters with reports, protocols, formal visits and meetings that do not represent the symptoms of our reality. The primate needs to paint a real picture of the diocese to the Catholicos and insist on flexibility to rebuild what we have lost. Anything less will be business as usual with the usual results. I imagine that Hayr Soorp is a bit overwhelmed by the entire few weeks. Once the fog clears and the real work begins, he must have the support to make adjustments in this diocese to build a sustainable model. That will be the primate’s job. Ours will be to support him and to remind him of the challenge.