The Witness of the Armenian Church in the Diaspora

Window View of the Armenian Church, Volume IV, Number 3, 1994

The Witness of the Armenian Church in the Diaspora

A Conversation with ARCHBISHOP ARAM KESHISHIAN, Moderator of World Council of Churches and Prelate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon

By Hratch Tchilingirian

Archbishop Aram Keshishian, as Moderator of the Central and Executive Committees of the World Council of Churches, has the highest position within the structure of WCC. The General Assembly of WCC convenes every seven or eight years. The Assembly elects the Central Committee, comprised of 168 members, a Moderator and two Vice-Moderators. The Moderator, the two Vice-Moderators and the General Secretary are the four officers of WCC. Archbishop Keshishian is the author of several books, among them Witness of the Armenian Church in a Diaspora Situation; Concilliar Fellowship; Orthodox Perspective on Mission. 

The Armenian Church in the Diaspora 

Q. In your book, The Witness of the Armenian Church in a Diaspora Situation, you discuss the theological aspects of the mission of the Armenian Church in the Diaspora. However, now that there are new conditions in Armenia – and as such the Diaspora – and as we come to the close of the twentieth century, what are some of the challenges facing the Armenian Church and her witness today?


ARCHBISHOP ARAM: This is a very timely and important question. We need to wrestle with this question constantly, seriously and creatively. Because today we are living in a new situation. We are facing new realities and problems. We are facing new difficulties and perspectives, new prospects. The Armenian Church cannot and should not be the same as she used to be a few years ago.

Where are we as a church? I hear from here and there, some critical and challenging questions about the Armenian Church. Some say that the Armenian Church’s role is diminished now. Some say that the Armenian Church is very much marginalized. Some say that the Armenian Church should become a spiritual institution. Some say that the Armenian Church has no political role to play. These are questions that are realistically and honestly raised in different communities, including Armenia. I think these are healthy and constructive questions, if are serious enough to deal with them. 

Let me make a very strong statement: we need to redefine, we need to reorganize and reorient the role, witness and mission of the Armenian Church today.  However, in order to do this, we need to look at our history. (History is a continuing reality. We cannot departmentalize history. We cannot draw lines of demarcation between various periods of history. History is one reality. Therefore, the holistic approach to history is very important). 

When we look at the history of the Armenian Church – within the broader history of the Armenian nation – we clearly see a few important things – things that we need to bear in mind when we speak about the present conditions and the role of the Armenian Church. 

First, the identification of the Armenian nation with the Armenian Church. This is not an accident. This was not due to the circumstances that the Armenian nation and church went through. No. This is the authentic expression of what we call the church as being “the people of God.” The church is not an institution. The church is the community, the people of God. Therefore, the church can never be conceived as being an institution among other institutions. The church cannot be conceived as a reality outside the context of the community. No. The church is the people, the community. This identification – which is a very profound ecclesiology – is very much real and existentially expressed in our church, in our nation. The church has been so much identified with the life of the nation, that to draw a line of demarcation between the two would be very artificial.  The identification of the church with the nation is a profound historical, theological reality that we see strongly manifested in the life of our church. Of course, the historical circumstances helped the Armenian church and nation to dissolve. We cannot deny this. In the absence of political power, the church assumed – to a certain extent and sense – the political role. This is very important. 

Secondly, the role of the Armenian Church has been, par excellence, a national role.  The Armenian Church has been a national church. Sometimes, the national role of the Armenian Church has been identified with a political or cultural or social role. In the course of history and because of historical circumstances, the spiritual, ecclesiastical and evangelistic dimensions and role of the Armenian Church were overshadowed by the church’s assumed political or national role.  I am saying this without any interpretation – this is a fact. The historical course has urged the Armenian Church to dissolve with the nation. 

These are the two main historical realities that one has to take into consideration when speaking about the present. 

In light of the new circumstances that are emerging in the life of the Armenian nation today – both in Armenia and the Diaspora – we need to redefine the role of the Armenian Church. 


Q. How do you redefine the role of the Armenian Church?


ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Of course, redefining does not mean that the Armenian Church should cease to be what it used to be – the church of the nation, (I do not want to say “national church”, because the term has different connotations today, for instance it might mean a “nationalistic church”). The Church of the Nation – the church being the people of God – should not become just another institution. For many centuries, the Armenian Church became not only a depository of Faith, but also a depository of our Armenianness. Our Armenianness was maintained in the church. Our Armenianness was kept intact in the church. The church became the birth place of our “Armenian soul.” 


Q. In this regard, should the Armenian Church today continue to be a depository of Armenianness?


ARCHBISHOP ARAM: It is important that we become down to earth, practical and existential and not theoretical. Any theoretical, conceptual evaluation of the present role of the Armenian Church could lead us to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. The church is an existential reality. The church is a part of life. Today my question is whether the Armenian Church should be the same in Armenia, as it is in New York or in Lebanon, or elsewhere?  I am not sure whether we can establish a common denominator, a common concept or a common definition of what the Armenian Church should be. The Armenian Church in Bourj Hamoud [Lebanon] should not be the same as it is in Manhattan or in Yerevan or in Karabakh. I can say the same thing for the Presbyterian church and for all other churches. As I said, the church is an existential reality and it should be understood within the context of a given community. For example, in Armenia, we need to redefine the role of the church according to the conditions that the people are facing in Armenia and in Karabakh. The same thing is true in the various parts of the Diaspora. 

But let me try to identify some areas of concern and engagement, that in my humble view could become common denominators in a general way.  First, in view of the fact that today we have an independent Armenia and an organized political power in the Diaspora, the role of the Armenian Church should become less and less political and more spiritual. This does not mean that the church should not deal with political issues. Lets be clear, if one says that the church should not deal with political questions, personally, I cannot accept that statement – that is very stupid and superficial statement. The church cannot be apolitical. Jesus is a political reality, a political event. When we say politics, we should not mean the position of the church toward this government or country, etc.  The church should not deal with minor things. But politics that concerns the whole life of our people, the destiny and future of our people. In this respect, the church has a decisive role to play. The church has an important voice in this respect – for instance concerning the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian Cause, concerning the highest interests of Armenia and the Armenian people. The church has a central role to play there. We have to be very clear about this distinction of politics and politics.


Q. How about the church and the political parties?


ARCHBISHOP ARAM: The church should not identify itself with any political structure or with any political organization or political ideological orientation. Otherwise, the church ceases to be a church and becomes a political organization. When the issues concern the whole Armenian nation, then the church has to play its role. 


Q. Going back to the spiritual role of the Armenian Church, how do you see this role today?


ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Now that we have an independent Armenia, the church should shift its emphasis from the political to the spiritual. The role of the Armenian Church was so much nationalized that the spiritual role of the church, due to the circumstance, was undermined, diminished, marginalized. It is time that the church reassumes her ecclesiastical, churchly, spiritual, evangelistic, missionary role in the life of the Armenian nation. 


Q. Could you identify specific areas that the church needs to reorganize?


ARCHBISHOP ARAM: In my view, the first is the area of Christian education. People need to be re-Christianized, re-evangelized in Armenia, as well as in the Diaspora. We claim to be the first Christian nation, however, Christianity – in many parts of our community life – is not a living presence. Let’s be honest about this. Christianity has become just a heritage, just a label, just a name, it is not a living reality. It is time that the church reaches, penetrates into the life of our people, our communities, to re-evangelize, to spread the Christian faith and to sow the seeds of faith. This is the primordial role of the church. For example, let’s take mission. For us mission is not outreach, in the sense of bringing the Gospel to non-Christians.  Our mission is mostly inreach. Today, we urgently need to build up our communities. We lack today a well organized Christian education in our communities. Christian education is the raison d’être, the essence of the mission of the church. It is not just a curriculum, it is more than that. The whole presence, the whole action of the church is one of essentially a Christian education. Therefore, the Armenian Church should reorganize itself in such a way that Christian education becomes a top priority – not only in Armenia, but also in the Diaspora.  And I cannot emphasize this enough.  Today when we discuss church priorities, we speak in such a way that Christian education is only needed in Armenia. We need Christian education also in the Diaspora. In the Diaspora, our communities are directly exposed to the danger of losing first, their Christian identity and second, their Armenian identity. Therefore, this should be a top priority for us today. 

The second area of concern is diakonia [service].  Diakonia is an integral part of the mission of the church. Many of our churches are doing diakonic work – for instance, we are doing this in Lebanon. However, this is not well organized on a large scale. What we need is to give a new dynamism, a new creativity and new structural, organic manifestation to the mission of the Armenian Church. This is particularly important in Armenia today.  By saying this, I am not criticizing anyone. I am just stating the facts. Today, the Armenian Church in Armenia is not well organized to do diakonia. I have to say this. We need to take this matter very seriously. Besides education and diakonia, we need evangelism. These three aspects of church mission are interrelated and complement each other.  

The evangelistic dimension of our churchly existence is of crucial importance. In fact we have lost our sense of evangelism. Preaching, teaching, praying are part of evangelism. But we have lost our true understanding of this. Today, both in Armenia and the Diaspora, we need to reevangelize our communities, giving them a sense that they are a part of the wider Christian community – a sense of belonging to Jesus Christ. For instance, our sermons have become very nationalistic, I understand this to a certain extent, however not at the expense of the spiritual or evangelistic mission of the church. In our sermons we have to teach the Good News. As with Jesus Christ, the Good News had a political dimension, and in our church the nationalistic dimension should be there, however, we should not put the emphasis on the political aspect.  The church has to become a church. 


Q. Many people would say that in order for the church to be and do the things that you mentioned, you need well educated and dedicated workers in the church.


ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Of course, we cannot do these things without people. The church is a community of people, not an organization. We need people. As you well know, today we lack workers, priests, deacons, educators, instructors in the church. I remember the late Patriarch Nalian has said that in order to reform the Armenian Church, one has to reform, first of all, the Armenian clergy.  We lack people in our church. This is why our seminaries and schools are called to play a determining role in this respect. How many theologians do we have in the Armenian Church? Where is the theological literature? Do we have a book on Armenian theology? Do we have any serious book on the history of the Armenian Church after Ormanian? Where is our patristic literature? What is the Armenian clergy doing today? We need to raise these questions in a self critical and honest way. For example, in Armenia we criticize other churches, confessions and sects; we view their presence and activities as a threat to our existence. But my question is: What do we do? What is our role? Just to criticize them? We react, but we don’t act. We need to act. It is not time just to criticize others. As the Americans say, actions speak louder than words.  We need action, we need constructive, healthy, Christian, Armenian involvement. Not just talk, talk, talk….  Nobody should criticize Etchmiadzin for all the problems in Armenia. We know that the church in Armenia went through a very difficult period of tremendous suffering. Everybody knows that. Etchmiadzin is now in the process of reorganization. But we lack the people who are going to make things move. What we need to do is to come together as one church, as one body of clergy and look into the issues together. How we can work together to reevangelize, rechristianize our people in Armenia. While two years ago I was in Armenia to attend the meeting of primates, concerning the Pan-Armenian Fund, this question was raised in the presence of His Holiness Vazken I and I told him, let’s not criticize other people, let’s not talk about what the others are doing. The question is what do we do, let’s organize ourselves and work. The primary thing that we need to do in Armenia is Christian education – the spreading of Christian faith among our people. And again, we need people to do this work. That is why the role of Armenian seminaries in preparing a new generation of workers in the church is very crucial and important.  We need a new generation of leaders who have the commitment and vision to go out and spread the Good News and to make our people strong in their faith and in their Armenian heritage. This is the mission of the Armenian Church.


This interview was conducted in Antelias, Lebanon, on June 22, 1994.


Hratch Tchilingirian
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