Posted on February. 12. 2019

BY Vosgan Mekhitarian                                             

Unfortunately, the Armenian Apostolic Church is held hostage in the hands of its hierarchy – the Catholicos, archbishops, and bishops.

The most recent Synod conference, which took place in Etchmiadzin from September 24 -27 of this year, was utterly disappointing. Even though we were not enthusiastic about the agenda and had no high expectations for the reformation of the church, we were, nevertheless, hopeful that, at the least, this bishops’ conference would address the most crucial subjects and issues facing the Armenian Church today.

It has been several decades since we last saw such a comprehensive congregation of bishops convened to discuss long-standing issues and pertinent challenges emerging from the modern world. How could they neglect to take advantage of such a momentous opportunity to discuss —at a minimum—the fractious nature of the Armenian Apostolic Church and explore all means for its unification?

The topics and issues discussed were clearly secondary and non-essential in nature, especially in light of overwhelming evidence of internal corruption – from top to bottom – not to mention any number of unresolved issues pertaining to the hierarchy of the church. Specifically, matters of urgent ecclesiastic attention and critical social issues of concern to the public, manifested by the widespread outcry in all media worldwide, were notably absent from the agenda and discourse.

Moreover, keeping in mind that no serious preliminary studies were conducted prior to the conference to set a reformative agenda – or even one that was cognizant of current issues – it appears that the bishops had come to Etchmiadzin for purposes other than tackling the burning questions that are consuming an increasingly dissatisfied public.

How have we arrived at this conclusion? Here are some facts that provide the rationale for our reasoning:

First, let’s examine the two main topics of the conference agenda. These were discussed, with pro and con opinions aired, and a final declaration was formulated, which, in turn, was published in the official website of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia as well as in many newspapers.

1. The conference decided to adopt a measure leading to the collective canonization of all Armenians who perished during the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923.) The Synod has directed to formulate a special committee to study individual and collective canonization issues, and to present their findings at the next Synod. Also, the committee has been tasked with drafting a canonization procedure for subsequent submissions.          

 It is inconceivable that in the 21st century the clergy of the Armenian Apostolic Church does not have procedures and rituals of canonization in place, similar to those of the Catholic and Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. Thus, it begs the question: How do you canonize millions of people as saints when you don’t have a solid foundation of precepts whereby to establish sainthood. In addition, was it really necessary to assemble 62 of the highest ranking clergy just to realize that there are no canons in place to determine sainthood?

That said, we should not approach this issue either lightly or superficially. There are serious theological and political implications associated with this matter. After all, Armenians throughout the world consider those who perished in the Genocide as saintly. However, the individual and/or collective canonization of those who were massacred presents ambiguous and insoluble dilemmas: a person who is to be canonized, must first be witnessed by living members of the church; then, it must be established that the person was indeed a devoted Christian—and martyred in the name of Christ, and lastly, that miracles were observed after his or her death.            

2. The next issue was the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Confirmation, and the moral-instructive guidelines of Holy Baptism. The Liturgical Committee was assigned to further continue their work.  Also the language of Armenian Church services was discussed.  All these issues have been addressed in the past locally in every Diocese or Prelacy, introducing, unilaterally in many instances, vernacular Armenian – sometimes even non-Armenian languages – in certain parts of the liturgy.

As we read on the web site of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, the sessions of September 27 were devoted to the modern challenges facing the Armenian Church. On September 26, 2013, Thursday morning, according to a participant eyewitness, His Holiness Aram I loudly declared to the participating bishops: “The public expects something from this conference. We (Karekin II and I) have nothing specific on our minds.  Bring us your suggestions by tomorrow morning.” And my source concluded: “Imagine if newspaper correspondents were here. What would they write about Catholicoi who had no specific agenda in their mind for a very important and unique Synod conference?”

As delineated by Aram I, the bishopric Synod is convened “to pray together, to think together, and seek avenues to reform the Armenian Church with serious and affirmative means”. Hence, was the above declaration the sum total of the outcome of the conference? Was the end result a set of flashy declarations about the Synod, and nothing else? Where are the crucial issues that trouble our church and our people? How will the church renew and reform itself, when we are not courageous enough to talk about issues that threaten the stability of a church that precipitates in the downfall of moral values, tramples on human rights issues, ignores a national identity crisis, and imperils the family structure and the value of love.

Our expectations are neither unreasonable nor unobtainable.  All we need is to have the courage to see and approach our weaknesses critically. Unfortunately, within the last fifty years and more, all we have witnessed is the church hierarchy giving lip service to critical issues, much like the repetitive crashing of waves on shore to only vanish with no trace.            

There was no need to revive Nerses Catholicos of Ishkhan from the 7th century to illustrate the turmoil in our church today. On a daily basis, the Armenian people are witnessing the dark realities of the church and the lifestyle of corrupted, business-minded clergy. There is no need to look for excuses anymore by claiming that the church’s internal problems are the result of Soviet era politics, in order to justify the decadent and effete lifestyle of the clergy. Haven’t the past 22 years of independence been enough time to correct our mistakes?

Catholicos Karekin II claims that if there are so many unresolved issues and problems in the Armenian Church, it is because of the absence of canons and a constitution, lying at the root of our misunderstandings. On the contrary, we affirm that the church has canons and a constitution in place, but the clergy, who has the duty to implement them, prefers to act as a totalitarian government, as a result of which we witness unconstitutional, unreasonable defrocking of priests, to name but one issue. 

One cannot understand why the Synod did not address the most crucial issues that threaten the stability of the church’s foundation, the threats that are related to the internal life of the church and the collective and private lives of our people.  Why is it that no one from the participating clergy addressed the following issues?

The letter of protest of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian—addressed to his Holiness Karekin II—and the impact of that letter on the psyche of the clergy.

The resignation letter of the Primate of France, His Eminence Archbishop Norvan Zakarian and the impact of that letter on the psyche of the coming generation of the clergy.

The illegal election of the Supreme Council of the Armenian Church in Holy Etchmiadzin.

The re-evaluation of the spiritual mission of the clergy and the requirement to abstain from involvement in secular businesses.

How to revitalize the spiritual life of the church and reflect it in the daily lives of ordinary people. In other words, the issue of being the guiding light and spiritual compass of the people.

To stay away from all secular wealth and to focus on, and to understand and heal the spiritual wounds of the people.

The church, as a “hospital-in-the-battlefield,” needs to heal the wounds of its soldiers and to reassure the hearts of the faithful and give them hope for the future.

The church has to develop an appropriate standpoint regarding gender issues, specifically as it relates to women and their place in the daily life of the church.  The church cannot subsist without a comprehensive understanding of women and their role in it.

The most crucial issue of celibacy of the clergy (the quasi-married status (legal/non legal) of high-ranking clergy). A solution needs to be found to end this nefarious practice.

The covert and surreptitious practice of homosexuality in the church.

The church must have a clear stand regarding abortions and must articulate it unambiguously, as they have direct implications for the survival of our nation.

In the future, we will evaluate and analyze individually issues that are mentioned here and we will suggest reasonable solutions. 

Please do not exploit our devotion and faith in the Armenian Church. If these conditions are not corrected, in all likelihood, they will create further disunity and discord, thus threatening the existence of our nation.   

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