Paralyzed by Protocol

Posted on March. 30. 2019

By Stepan Piligian

Change is a part of life. Right now, change is forced upon us by external factors over which we have little control. It’s called life. Managing change happens when we anticipate factors and author that change. This is called vision. Great institutions have it because they are motivated by not simply surviving, but by thriving. They have higher expectations than accepting what the environment offers. They strive to influence the environment and prosper. They don’t play victim. You manage change or you risk decline…perhaps extinction. History is full of many examples. Many of them were once peers of the Armenians.

Ask yourself one question: Why have the Armenian people survived despite centuries of persecution, cultural deprivation, loss of national sovereignty or systemic oppression? Any one of these is capable of opening the path to extinction. Yet our destiny has been one of the great anomalies of history. It is a complicated question but one simple answer may be our ability to adapt. Adaptation is essentially successfully managing change. I believe Armenians historically have been pretty good at managing change. We knew when to take a stand and when to go with the flow. They drew a line in the sand on Christianity with the Persians in 451 and well, we know the impact of that decision. We speak different dialects, cook some different food and even have other regional cultural differences—all influenced by external factors, but we adapted. Yet the core of who we are flows through all Armenians. We simply expanded the common denominator. Does anyone believe that everything in the Armenian nation in 400 AD is the same as today? Of course not. The important point is that the “core” survived and other elements were “flexible.” A very notable example of change management is the Armenian Church. Yes, our church. Due to political turmoil, the seat of the Armenian Church, originally in Etchmiadzin, moved several times over many centuries, returning in the 15th century. Moving from Persian-held eastern Armenia to many centuries in Turkish-held Cilicia was no small task. Just imagine the cultural changes that occurred over several centuries until the seat was returned to Etchmiadzin in 1441. Despite this, the canonical core of the church remained even as other “traditions” changed. The early Catholicoi were married, and their successors were in many cases descendants. Change happens. The list goes on. Only what God has commanded is constant.
Today the church is struggling with change. Almost twice as many Armenians live outside the homeland than in it. This is our reality. We must adapt or face eventual full assimilation in the diaspora. Many of the Catholicoi from the genocide until 1991 worried more about the church surviving in Armenia. The political climate dictated this reality. When Armenia became free in 1991, the challenges were immense for a nation denied religious freedom. Churches had to be rebuilt or built, and thousands were baptized. Programs for education and spiritual identity were implemented. Now that the shock has been absorbed, it seems that Holy Etchmiadzin wants to take on a much stronger role in the diaspora. In the US, the host culture has a significant influence on the psychology and cultural norms of Armenians. It does not mean we are doomed, but our existence must be allowed to adapt, maintain the core values and provide flexibility. To many, it is a scary notion, but it’s a formula for success.
Unfortunately our church today operates with a hierarchical structure that goes beyond what seems healthy. Today we seem to fear change as a means of eroding our core. For example, the Catholicos is involved in many decisions that are traditionally the responsibility of the Diocesan bishop. In fact, this centralized control approach prevents necessary change from taking place. In our attempt to keep the church whole by maintaining a control structure, we are weakening the church by disempowering the local leaders who are culturally attuned to the needs of the faithful. I do not believe the Mother Holy See understands the needs of American Armenians. They believe their role is to “keep us Armenian” by preventing change. This is a path of decline. It is not what our ancestors did to sustain our existence. We need not fear change. We need to fear complete assimilation.
The Armenian Church is a beautiful institution that actually has many progressive elements in its structure and history. For example the church is democratically organized with both lay and clergy representation in local (parish), regional (diocese) and international bodies. We also have a rich tradition of women in the diaconate.
Both of these examples are poorly performing today. Church assemblies at the diocese level legislate little due to the hierarchical structure. We have become a “tops down” church rather than through the activism of the faithful. The battle will be won or lost at the parish level, but parishes and diocese are not empowered to act. Issues such as intermarriage, language, women in our church or spirituality are causing some to leave simply because the church takes a passive approach.
Here is a simple test. Make a list of the top five issues facing local parishes today (I offered my view) and then compare that to the agenda of the Diocesan Assembly or Prelacy NRA. How much time is actually allocated toward these real issues that impact the parishes? My guess is less than 10 percent maybe. That is not a way to win. Our church life is bogged down with “layers of protocol.” “Don’t bring that up…too controversial.” “Let’s not talk about that in public.” “We’ll appoint a committee.” Or “we have more important items.” Most assemblies from a legislative or decision-making perspective are failures. This has been my experience as a delegate for many years to both the Diocesan Assembly and Prelacy NRA. They are social events or a reunion of sorts for honorable people who serve the church with good intentions but are powerless in our maze of unvalued added activities. We burden our Diocesan councils with mundane issues that do little or anything to help parishes. Yes, we have some excellent programs available to the parishes, but in the trenches of daily parish life, it is a struggle. Change is required, but serious dialogue must enable change.
It is not all the fault of our church leaders. Many Armenians do not wish to live on the “edge.” They don’t want to be criticized for challenging the status quo. But these are the same people who live with the painful and unnecessary decline of many of our parishes. The Vehapar visits with impersonal formality, and we leave all our concerns at the door. We line up to offer greetings and go back to our reality the next day—no closer to solutions. We must move beyond the protocol that consumes our time and prevents us from feeling comfortable, challenging our church to move forward. If we are to hold our leaders accountable, then we must start by holding ourselves accountable. If you love your church, then don’t fear challenging it. With a pure heart only good will happen. Change is part of our tradition. It has been the enabler of our survival. Together let us focus on preserving the core and adapting to remain relevant. Ask yourself this question. For the sake of church, is it not worth challenging the status quo to ensure its future?

One response to “Paralyzed by Protocol”

  1. Diane Thomson Mkitarian says:

    Very well and plainly expressed Stephan! Our church has very little presence in daily life in the Diaspora. In order to survive it must reach out constantly to connect with the average person and offer succor and peace in these hectic times we all live in. I so enjoyed the English language podcasts from one young priest here explaining some of our traditional rituals. They were on Facebook, and he is a very personable fellow. They were enjoyable, informative and short, perfect for the time! If more of this sort of outreach occurs, it takes away the mythical realm of the Armenian church and becomes a real part of our lives. We would then be more willing to participate in keeping the vitality of our church and culture alive, instead of regulating the Diocese to a closed club that the average Armen has no idea about the function or purpose. This disconnect is the downfall of many institutions, but to repair the rift bridges must be built and repaired! Thank you!

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