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The Empire of Etchmiadzin: Reform or Regress

Posted on May. 18. 2019

By Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian

The proverbial decline, the tragic fall of the mighty Roman Empire and the “Glory That Was Greece” has been attributed by scholar historians to a single leading factor — that of corruption. Corruption practiced by the ruling class has debilitated the government despite their age-old effective organizational, management principles. As a direct result, the citizenry suffered irrevocable injustice, hardship, disorientation.
The average Roman or the Greek citizen had lost faith in the governing body of their respective empires. What had followed was anomie to eventual breakdown of the fabric of society to such an extent when even reforms could not save the doomsday.
Now, let’s come to the Church in Armenia. By definition, the church consists of people who constantly are in need of renewal and reform. Living entities, be they plants, animals or humans including social organizations must be periodically renewed for the sake of keeping with the zeitgeist. Otherwise, they become moribund. Likewise, spiritual renewal, when it occurs in human life, is also subject to renewal, to return to basic principles, a refocusing on basic goals and objectives of society within which it operates.
Due to recent changes in the regime of the Armenian government through the so-called Velvet Revolution, a vocal segment of society is desirous of changes in the Armenian Church governance as well. This process of renewal in the church seems to be normal, as they have been more or less constant over the centuries. The church should not be cocooned in exorbitant comfort and luxury while the faithful are in need of help.
Then as now, there have been times when the need for reform has been more imperative. At such times, the church must go through a comprehensive reform. At times the church needs transformation through reform such as at the beginning of the sixteenth century when conflict led to the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation. This was also the period in which the Protestant Reformation and the Unity of the Western Christianity took place.
While the Armenian Church does not need a deep and comprehensive change in doctrines, it does seem to need change in governing it effectively, transparently as well as spiritually. In other words, the Church needs to adopt ways to render it more open to the scrutiny of its followers in every aspect of the word.
Recently, allegations of misconduct have been levied against its leadership both at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral (the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic faith, the administrative headquarters of the Armenian Church) and some of its satellite churches in the Diaspora. The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is an empire by virtue of the fact that it governs several Armenian Church locations around the world. Its sphere of influence includes United States (New York and Los Angeles), Canada, various countries in South America, Russia (Moscow and other regions), Europe (France, Switzerland, England, Germany, Ukraine, etc.), Australia, India and other parts of the world).
I came to know about the anomalies existing in the Armenian Church first when I read disturbing news in the USA Armenian Life Magazine (Issue Dec. 28-Jan. 3, 2019), reporting the death threat against Mr. Appo Jabarian, The Executive Publisher and Managing Editor of the above-mentioned publication. The death threat by the followers of Primate Hovnan Derderian intended to silence Mr. Jabarian for his editorial exposing Catholicos Karekin II’s unholy relationship with the leader of the Turkish Grey Wolves organization —which is a sworn enemy of the Armenian nation.
It is important to note further that Mr. Appo Jabarian exercised his professional duty to report on Karekin II’s close relationship with the terrorist Turkish Grey Wolf mob which is known to have been behind Hrant Dink’s assassination. The editorial erupted on Mr. Appo Jabarian lynching for writing an unpleasant, but compelling, news was primitive, unjust, and downright undemocratic. Mr. Jabarian has been one of Armenian community’s ardent activists, relentless in his efforts to promote and protect the rights and interests of the Armenian people, locally and internationally. As I have stated before in one of my previous articles, silencing a community voice, such as that of Mr. Jabarian’s, is a shameful act!
As a member of the Armenian Diaspora, a long-time believer in the Armenian Apostolic Church, and knowing the impeccable character and relentless activism record on behalf of the Armenian nation of Mr. Jabarian for several decades, my interest grew deeper about the problems and issues surrounding our centuries-old Armenian Church. As a result, I researched and wrote several articles (e.g., “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, “How to Evaluate a Spiritual Leader”, “The Distinction Between a Religious Leader and a Spiritual Leader” and “Preach Water, But Drink Wine: The Two-Faced Morality”). All four titles have been recently published.
Arguably, Armenians have always respected Etchmiadzin, the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church. History has it that when Armenian kings were conquered, our clergymen served as the surrogate rulers of the Armenian nation. Undoubtedly, they were also the most educated leaders of our people.h
Since the dawn of Christianity, through war and peace, through thick or thin, famine or pestilence, Etchmiadzin has stood stoutly as the beacon of hope for the Armenian nation. As is the case at the present, it sometimes goes through turbulent waves when it happens to be in the wrong hands of leadership.
The checkered history of Armenia has shown that we have not won too many wars. In fact, we have lost more wars than won, but we have kept our deep faith against the odds.
Presently, we have more accusations of wrongdoing than exonerations, we have more questions than answers, and we have more problems than solutions. In this article, we shall present solutions rather than belaboring the accusations and the problems in the Armenian Church. The Church’s dirty laundry has already been exposed by many reporters. According to one well-known and reliable source, Etchmiadzin is characterized by one statement that “It’s a pit of vipers which requires wholesale clean-up: oligarchs in spiritual garb, women-chasers, homosexuals, pederasts, [and] leeches”. Unless the clergymen heed the frustration of the people, the march for reform will continue with a louder band.
In researching the critical issues surrounding Holy Church of Etchmidzin, I realized that the issues pertain to the conduct of certain clergymen rather than to the cannons of the Church. The attitudes and behavior of the church personnel are at the center of controversy and their failure to practice certain requisite principles. The various concerns of the Armenian people hinges on the practice of the miscarriage of the Church’s required, lacked, and misused or unused principles guiding a healthy, robust church.
For the sake of brevity, here are some self-explanatory suggestions based on objective research for the viability of our Church:
Principles and Practices Toward Reforming the Armenia Church (some of the following are already in place, but are not being practiced)—
I. Spirituality: The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. Some of our clergymen should embrace spirituality in a more profound way. In addition to being religious leaders, our clergymen should serve as spiritual leaders, leading by example of highest ethical standards set by the church and its membership. Spirituality should be chosen over material benefits by all of our clergymen.
II. Abstinence: The practice of restraining oneself from indulging in something, typically alcohol or sex. Sexual activities are to be disciplined when celibacy is required from a clergyman who had taken a pledge of abstinence (nephalism).
III. Transparency (i.e., mainly financial): The condition of being lucid in financial affairs. Annual independent audits of financial practices and financial statements at parish and diocesan levels are to be conducted; independent elections for parish pastoral councils and finance councils to be held; and unified reporting standards for all parishes and dioceses are to be observed.
IV. IV. Accountability: Lack of accountability (i.e., responsibility, liability, answerability) has corroded public respect for the church leaders. We need reform and accountability in order to preserve the viability of our
Church.
V. V. Defrocking of Clergymen: Refers to depriving a person of holy orders of ecclesiastical status. This practice should be based on objective set of criteria and political revenge should be avoided at all cost.
VI. VI. Decentralization: The transfer of authority from central to local government. Centralization breads dictatorship which would kill democracy, suffocate creativity and misdirect response to local needs
VII. Constitution/Bylaws: Since Etchmiadzin is a hierarchical organization and, therefore, it necessities a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed, we need a codified constitution or canon, a system of laws/rules to guide decision making to avoid subjectivity.
VIII. Mission/Vision to preserve the Armenian nation observe God’s words from generation to generation with the hope of maintaining, promoting, and restoring our Homeland, Hayastan, with the blessing of the Lord!
IX. Empowerment of Laity: The need is great to educate clergy and laity as to lay rights and responsibilities in the parish, in the diocese, and in the global governance of our Church, and codify those rights where they are not explicitly cited in canon law.
X. Governance: The action or manner of governing the organization of the church. A more responsive system of governance will be required. We need to develop an inclusive governance structures to avoid cronyism, nepotism, sinecures, and similar corrupt practices by giving the laity a meaningful role in the selection of bishops; restore the requirement that bishops must come from the diocese they serve; refine the role of the “sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium) and representative procedures; strengthen the independence of and lay participation in national episcopal conferences. We need to develop a consultative process that involves the participation of the local community in the selection of their next clergyman and to encourage selection of the clergyman from the local diocesan community without any bias or self-aggrandizement.
XI. Global Council: We need to host a representative global council of the Church. We must establish a global Church Council of the entire People of Armenian descent, with lay and ordained voting representatives, to be held within the decade, to adopt necessary reforms.
As mentioned earlier in this article, most of the foregoing principles are or may be in place as window dressing. What is direly needed is to have these conditions practiced to the letter.
While it is fine for the principle of the separation of church and state, there should not be a division between church and the people it serves. Etchmiadzin should not be shrouded into mystery for the average Armenian. For example, the constitution and the bylaws should be on line for all to read and know as to what is appropriately being practiced by our clergymen. The age of “father (der heir) knows best” is over.
The castle of Etchmiadzin may crumble if it continues business as usual. Shrouding Etchmiadzin in mystery would alienate the people, the average Armenian. Central to the concept of openness is the idea of transparency also to mitigate, if not eliminate, corruption, cronyism, and condescension.
While we should continue respecting and cherishing our clergymen and their positions, however they should not be held above the decency written and unwritten laws of Armenians. Armenians have loved their clergymen for centuries and will do so for millennia if the church puts its house in order. For example, the Northern Avenue, the Rodeo Drive of Armenia, has added power and prestige to the country. The locals as well as tourists appreciate its sights and atmosphere created by sidewalk cafes, street performers, lights, and luxury shops. However, when it becomes infested with thieves, thugs, and criminals, people would tend to avoid it as a snake pit. Our Church should be a place of purity, honesty, virtue and spirituality to the maximum.
When the lifestyles of some of the clergymen were exposed, it opened the flood gate of protests in Armenia as well as in the Diaspora. The people rejected the status quo and clambered for reform and removal of certain clergymen from their sacred positions for their secular activities.
Let us invest in optimism. It is not too late to restore our Church to the vibrant messenger of the gospel it is meant to be a Church where our children and grandchildren would look forward to joining us on Sundays as we worship together the way generations of our forbearers have done before, proud to claim ourselves members of the Armenian race who were first in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion and have fought to death to defend it.

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