Was it general dissatisfaction or an Etchmiadzin coup?

The Very Rev. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan was elected as the 13th Primate of the Eastern Diocese on May 6, 2022, during the 120th Diocesan Assembly. (Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones)

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 Primateonly one term into his tenurelost 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.

His Grace Bishop Daniel Findikyan (Photo: Facebook)

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.

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.

14 Comments

  1. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan’s ascension as Primate was perhaps the best Armenia-related news we have had in well over four years. What we Armenians don’t need is “woke” and/or westernized leaders – be it in politics, be it in church, be it in the homeland, be it in the diaspora. Congratulation Hayr Mesrop, and Godspeed!

  2. Father Mesrop has served in the Eastern Diocese for several years, has visited numerous parishes in the Diocese, including continued service in a Midwestern parish where he served as a beloved pastor and was much welcomed. He is charismatic, approachable, well educated, and speaks 4 languages including excellent English. It is unjust to attach labels to him. We have many clergy in the Diocese from Etchmiadzin. Being “American born” is not a justifying criteria to criticize or to exclude. Does that mean our past Primates not born in America were rejects?

    • Well said, Joyce Sulahian. It is the deeds that count in the end, not the words or vision statements.

  3. Յարգելի Պարոն,
    Ուշի ուշով կարդացի սգանչելի անգլիերենով մը գրի առնուած վերոնշեալ յօդուածը: Կը յուսամ, թէ Ձեր մայրենի լեզուին՝ մեծասգանչ հայերէնին ալ նոյն աստիճան լաւատեղեակ էք ու պիտի կարենաք ըմբռնել գրածներս:
    Ձեր ներողամտութեան ապաւինելով պիտի համարձակիմ ըսել, թէ ա՛յդ երկարապատում գրութեան ընթմէջէն որոշապէս կը ժայթքէր անտեղի նախադասութիւններ, լեղի բառեր յայտնելով Ձեր անհանգստութիւնիը՝ առանց խարդախութեան, առանց երկմտութեան, մեծամասնութեան գուէներով, պաշտօնապէս եւ արժանաւոր կերպով, Ա.Մ.Ն.ու Արեւելեան դէմի Առաջնորդ ընտրուող հոգեւորականի մը՝ Հոգեշնորհ Տէր Մեսրոպ վրդ. Պարսամեանի հանդէպ:
    Այդ գրուածքով Դուք, ո՛չ միայն կը դրսեւորէիք Ձեր եւ Ձեզի նման խորողներու զգացումները, ա՛յլ նաեւ՝ պատճառ կը հանդիսանաք ամերիկահայոց եկեղեցասէր հատուածին բաժան բաժան ըլլալուն:
    Մինչդեռ, շատ պարզ է խնդիրը: Եթէ նորընտիր առաջնորդէն գոհ չըլլաք, յաջորդ անգամ տարբեր մէկուն համար կը գուէարկէք, ինչպէս՝ որ եղաւ արդէն: Կրնամ Ձեզ վստահեցնել, թէ ծիսական, կրօնական, իմացական, լեզուաբանական, մարդասիրական եւայլն գետիններու վրայ լաւագոյնս պատռաստուած, ԻՍԿԱՊԷՍ ՀԱՒԱՏԱՑԵԱԼ այս հոգեւորականը, ո՛չ Ձեր տուած օրինակներու նման, ի՜նչ ի՜նչ միտումներով տասնեակ տարիներ առաջնորդական աթոռի կառչիլ կը խորհի եւ ո՛չ ալ, զանազան խմբակներ, իրենց որոշ շահեր ապահովելու համար կրնան համարձակիլ՝ խարդախութեան միջոցներով զինքը վերընտրել:
    Առաջիկային՝ Ձեզմէ, միմիայն շինիչ արտայայտութիւններ կարենալ կարդալու առաջադրութեամբ
    մնան բարեկամաբար՝
    Բրօֆ. Տքթ. Վահէ Բագար

  4. Would the author also question the replacement of Abp. Yeprem Tabakian from the Western Prelacy, or the replacement of Abp. Moushegh Mardirosian, both well before their retirement age? Fr. Mesrob Parsamyan endeared himself with his warm personality, kind disposition, spiritual depth, and demonstrated administrative skills. His election is a testimony to his dedication, and does not necessarily mean denial or rejection of his predecessor.

  5. A genuine concern about the future of the Eastern Diocese or a conspiracy against its new leader?
    I want to believe it is the concern, though nowadays conspiracies seem to be the trend. With all the respect to the author, this article is not what I would expect to read only days after the new primate was confirmed. In these turbulent times for our nation and state the last thing we need is the division in our church. We have been blessed to have the greatest of Surpazans lead our diocese each with their own personality and unique gifts, regardless of the number of terms they served. All that’s required from us the faithful is to be unified in accepting them with love and supporting them in their mission. I pray for the new Primate and wish him strength and wisdom for his task is not going to be easy.

  6. A pathetic, ill-disguised Jan 6th Coup.
    Sadly, not any true mention of Christ’s will for His Bride, the Church. Is it really more administrative skill that needs to be present in reviving the Church, or is it the rekindling of our faith? You can hire administrative people, but you can’t hire someone to inspire the hearts of the next generation. The political power games distract from drawing closer to God; then you wonder why the youth is so disaffected?! I’m only sensing the arrogance of Saul vs the humility of David—and I weep for the opportunity we have lost

  7. I wanted to comment in response to some of these comments. To be clear, in no way was Stepan commenting on Hayr Mesrob specifically, more so the process that took place, which he is correct about.

  8. Very good news from the eastern diocese. We need community leaders who put our spirituality, traditions and identity ahead of deadend nonsense such as assimilation and Americanization.

  9. I don’t get the author’s point of writing an article about a well-qualified primate’s loss of election. The fact is, the majority of the 181 delegates (lay and clergy) representing their respective parishes did not feel the former primate’s “vision” worked for them during the last 4 years and he was not able to connect with the young and old of their communities.
    Being well educated person and being qualified administrator are two different things. The office of primate is an administrative position.
    Let the newly elected primate run the diocese for the next for years. And if he cannot connect with the people of the parishes in his jurisdiction, their delegates and pastors will elect another one four years.
    Bishop Daniel is very educated clergyman who most likely will find a teaching position in many of respected universities. He is the best there is in teaching.

  10. It will be hard to rebuild or for any Primate to lead as long as the election process is shrouded in secrecy. The vote count should be released – with the results broken down by clergy and laity. Candidates’ names should be released well in advance of the Convention, with opportunities given to introduce themselves to the wider community.

  11. Leaders of the two branches of the Armenian Apostolic church need to be appointed by Etchmiadzin and Antelias respectively. Under no circumstances should the assimilated masses of a degenerate society be given the power to choose their leaders. The same applies to politics. We saw where “democracy” got Armenia in 2018. We are also seeing a similar decline in Europe and North America.

  12. It is somewhat understandable that some will question how an incumbent Primate with a sincere desire to improve the Diocese can lose an election for Primate. Normally, such elections for Primate include the incumbent and two other minor candidates necessary to satisfy the minimum of the three candidates required by the Diocesan By-laws. For this election, the Eastern Diocese was most fortunate to have multiple great candidates. As a Diocesan delegate, I can attest that there was no such coup as suggested by Stepan. In an earlier reply, some very straightforward delegate numbers were given. It is impossible, given the wide range in delegate profiles, that any significant influence could have been exerted for this election. We all wish Bishop Daniel the very best in his continued ministry, and pray for Hayr Mesrob in his new leadership position.

  13. As I count Bishop Daniel as a personal friend, I am disheartened that he lost his position. But as I wrote him as soon as I heard the outcome, be confident that Our Lord has adifferent mission for him.

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