Celebration of Faith: 1700th Anniversary

Armenian International Magazine (AIM) Vol. 12, Issue 2, March 2001, pp 22-24

Cover Story

The Armenian Church celebrates 1700th Anniversary of its Establishment and Adoption of State Religion in Armenia

By Hratch Tchilingirian

Imagine a giant organization with over 350 offices and branches in some 40 countries, with 500 top executives, thousands of full- and part-time employees, tens of thousands of volunteers, serving millions of people. That's the Armenian Apostolic Church today and, this year, it's celebrating
the 1700th anniversary of its founding.

The Church is the largest national structure -- historically, even older than the state -- and almost inarguably, the most institutionalized Armenian establishment anywhere in the world. In the last 1,700 years, the Armenian Church has proven to be the most durable and continuous institution in the life of the Armenian people wherever they may be-- from Armenia to cities and towns as far as the Far East.

Today, the Armenian Church is comprised of four Hierarchical Sees (four main "headquarters") to which the overwhelming majority of Armenians belong -- at least nominally. The largest is the Catholicosate of All Armenians in Ejmiatsin, established in the fourth century. The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia (established in Antelias, Lebanon in 1930) has roots which go back to the 13th century. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem and Constantinople are almost as old, with the first established in the 14th century by the St. James Brotherhood and the second established in 1461. Each hierarchical See has its own religious order (brotherhood), has ecclesiastical jurisdiction (with dioceses and parish churches) over a specific region, and internal administrative by-laws. They are not separate churches, but are part of the "One, Holy, Apostolic Church" and are one in dogma, theology, liturgy and rendered services.

1700 Years Ago

This year also marks the 1700th anniversary of adoption of Christianity as the state religion in Armenia.

It is believed that Christianity was introduced to Armenia as early as the second half of the first century through the evangelical activities of two of Christ's disciples, Thaddeus and Bartholomew. However, it was in the fourth century that Christianity became the official state religion of Armenia, when St. Gregory the Illuminator (c. 240-325) -- a descendant of a noble house in Parthia and brought up as a Christian in Cappadocia (currently Turkey) -- baptized Armenia's King Tiridates III. St. Gregory became the first bishop (catholicos) of Armenia after his consecration in Caesarea and established the nation's Holy See in Vagharshapat, Ejmiatsin. Ejmiatsin, literally means "the only begotten descended", based on the legend that Christ came to Gregory in a vision and indicated to him where to build the first Armenian Church.

Following the adoption of Christianity and establishment of the Church, the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots made the Christian faith accessible to the people in a written form. Until then, Greek and Syriac were the languages used in church services. Soon after the invention of the alphabet, a group of monks, headed by Mashdott and Catholicos Sahak, translated into Armenian the Holy Scriptures followed by other biblical, theological and liturgical literature. "The missionary and literary labors [of this period] shaped the destiny of the Armenian people and Church for succeeding generations," says church scholar Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan. This period was one of intense activity and rapid development for the Church and was decisive in its consolidation and nationalization."

Throughout history, whenever Armenians faced political and social difficulties or challenges, the Armenian Church was at the forefront of national life, at times serving as a surrogate government. But what makes the Armenian Church different from any other institution is its primary raison d'etre: "the salvation of people's souls," as articulated by Catholicos Karekin II of All Armenians; or what Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia describes as a "community of faith sustained by the Holy Spirit." Still, when people speak about the Armenian Church and its history, very little is said about its "religious" or "spiritual" dimension. It is the church's cultural, ethnic and political role that is easier to understand and explain. It may be the Armenian church's "spiritual liberalism" that makes it harder to grasp its religious function.

Unlike, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrines, theology, and canons of the Armenian Church are guidelines, rather than legal documents by which a believer is judged. Pastoral theology, rather than dogmatic theology, has been the basis of the relationship between the Church and its faithful. Issues of a private nature, such as abortion or homosexuality that pertain to one's personal relationship with God are left to the individual believer to discern what is right and what is wrong. While providing basic "moral principles," the Church has not "legislated" in a legal sense, the depth and extent of an individual's relationship to such complex moral and social issues.

Indeed, for Armenians religion is not a coherent set of dogmas and practices, but an eclectic set of beliefs. Like the Jews, religion is incorporated into the national ethos of Armenians. This "belief system" is preserved and transmitted primarily through the family and its extended network of relationships rather than directly through the Church. The practice of madagh or animal sacrifice, for example, is a traditional ceremony in the Armenian Church with roots in pre-Christian Armenian history and one that continues to be widely accepted, especially in Armenia and throughout the Middle East.

Through such practices, the Armenian Church, as a significant, historical national institution, enjoys widespread respect by those who view their Church -- and religion -- as a fusion of beliefs, language, land and history -- a source of affirmation and validation of Armenian collective identity regardless of one's personal views.

Still, in addition to the general trends of secularization and globalization that are redefining society and religion everywhere, the Armenian Church has other short- and long-term challenges, the least of which is the jurisdictional disputes started almost half a century ago between the Sees of Ejmiatsin and Cilicia. Major church leadership changes in the last decade did not resolve what is seen as a painful chapter in the modern history of the church, especially in the Diaspora.

Since Armenia's independence, on the other hand, the Church's role in Armenian society is still not clear. How does it address the problem of corruption in Armenia, especially after long years of moral dislocation of society. Teaching basic moral and ethical values and their relevance to everyday life is a significant responsibility of the Church in Armenia and in the Diaspora, and one that it has not yet found a way to meet.

Indeed, the challenges facing the Armenian Church are many (see AIM July 1999 and November 1999), but, perhaps, the most dire is the recruitment and training of new cadre of clergy and lay leaders, who would carry out the mission of the Church in the 21st century. Instead of producing only liturgical functionaries in the existing handful of seminaries, the Church needs scholars, theologians and professionals who would make Armenian Christianity relevant to increasingly sophisticated congregations. Other than hagiographic literature and translations of ancient writings of church fathers, there's virtually no literature or discourse produced by the Church that addresses the thinking and feelings of the contemporary "member" of the Armenian Church. The question is whether to continue the slow-moving status quo, or to create a "new mission" for the Church carried out by a highly qualified corps of workers.

The hierarchs of the Armenian Church characterized the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia as an opportunity to re-evangelize, re-Christianize Armenia after 70 years of communism and as an opportunity for renewal for all Armenians around the world. While the celebrations and festivities taking place this year would highlight what the Church has been in the past, in the coming decades the Church and its leadership will have to articulate what the Church is and will be for Armenians, both collectively and individually. If "faith, hope, love and charity" are the fundamental tenets of the Church's teaching, how are they taught, practiced, translated and made relevant to everyday life?

Armenian Apostolic Churches*
(355 churches in 39 countries)

(E = Ejmiadsin; C = Catholicosate of Cilicia; J = Patriarchate of Jerusalem; T = Patriarchate of Istanbul and all Turkey)

Argentina 7 (E)
Armenia 43 (E)
Australia 2 (E)
Austria 1 (E)
Belgium 1 (E)
Brazil 3 (E)
Bulgaria 9 (E)
Canada 19 (E & C)
Cyprus 3 (C)
Egypt 3 (E)
England 2 (E)
Ethiopia 1 (E)
France 16 (E)
Georgia 3 (E)
Germany 1 (E)
Greece 4 (E, C; Crete is T)
India 4 (E)
Iran 30 (C )
Iraq 2 (E)
Israel 7 (J)
Italy 1 (E)
Jordan 1 (J)
Karabakh 19 (E)
Latvia 1 (E)
Lebanon 15 (C )
Moldova 2 (E)
Netherlands 2 (E)
Romania 2 (E)
Russia 9 (E)
Swaziland 1 (private chapel)
Sweden 1 (E)
Switzerland 1 (E)
Sudan 1 (E)
Syria 6 (E & C )
Turkey 38 (T)
UAE 1 (C )
Ukraine 2 (E)
Uruguay 2 (E)
USA 105 (E & C)
Venezuela 1 (C )

[added after publication]


Hierarchical See   Bishops Celibate Priests

Ejmiadsin              28            65
Cilician                  18            26
Jerusalem             13            31
Istanbul                   3             4

Total                      63          122

*Not included 2 Catholicoi and 2 Patriarchs
**Estimated number of married priests 300.

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