© 1996 Dennis R. Papazian

The Armenian Church in America

A Review Essay

by Dennis R. Papazian, Ph.D.


Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, The Armenian Church in America, New York, Armenian Prelacy, 1995. Pp. 1-92.

The question of renewing the administrative unity of the Armenian church in North America has occupied the attention of churchmen, intellectuals, and politicians almost since the very beginning of the split in the 1930s. Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, the Prelate of the Antelias related prelacy in America, has himself been intimately involved with the question since his election in 1978. In order to put the issues in some perspective, and to give concerned people food for thought, Archbishop Mesrob has recently published a book on the history of the Armenian church in America.

This book is worth reading both by members of the Diocese and the Prelacy. Diocesan and Prelacy members will find much valuable information in it, and Diocesan members will gain a deeper understanding of the thinking, emotions, and feelings of Prelacy members. Archbishop Mesrob is known as a dedicated churchman, a patriotic Armenian, and an intellectual of some standing. Furthermore, he occupies a position of importance. What he thinks personally has some weight, and one may presume that his book reflects the thinking and feelings of many members of the Prelacy community. What he writes, accordingly, is worth analysis and reflection by those interested in church unity.

The Archbishop's major theme is that only through mutual understanding and Christian forbearance can the gulf between the Diocese and the Prelacy be bridged and the unnatural split in the Armenian church be healed.

The book deals, in turn, with the formation of the Armenian community in America, the origins of the Diocese, the split in the Church, the appeal of one faction to Antelias to be accepted under its jurisdiction, and the attempts at unity. It ends with Archbishop Mesrob's program as to how true unity, both administrative and spiritual, can be brought about.

Early immigrants, as Archbishop Mesrob implies, were the wretched refuse of a world in upheaval. They had left their homelands, often under duress, and were cast ashore in a new land with a different language, culture, economy, customs, and values. Truly, they were strangers in a strange land. It is no wonder that most of them were confused and disoriented.

Immigrants, Armenians as well as others, organized compatriotic societies, mutual help organizations, political parties, and churches. The immigrants, torn from their traditional society, lacking a established leadership, and having no common vision of the future, often could agree on very little. These early organizations, including the church as Archbishop Mesrob illustrates, tended to be fractious and contentious. Thus, Archbishop Mesrob argues, the split in the church reflects the difficulty Armenians in America had from the very beginning in forming and maintaining an organized, coherent church structure.

The split which we now confront, although facilitated by the contentious nature of an immigrant community, is a product of the fall of the first Armenian Republic and the forcible establishment of communism in eastern Armenia by the Bolshevik Red Army. Many of the churches with their See behind the Iron Curtain--such as the Russians, the Rumanians, and the Ukrainians--split in America into two, three, or even four groups, as did the Russians themselves.

While the Archbishop gives some detail regarding the mechanics of the church split in America in the 1930s, he does not give enough. Those interested will have to turn to other books to get the names, numbers, and the votes involved in this complex issue.

In my opinion, those involved in the split of Armenians in America--and even those who perpetuate it today--had their thinking clouded by four myths: (1) that the first Armenian Republic fell because of faulty policy of the Dashnak party; (2) that Armenian Bolsheviks overthrew the first Republic; (3) that all Armenians in the Armenian SSR were Bolsheviks or pro-Bolshevik; and (4) that what we thought or did in the diaspora had influence over the course of events in the homeland. None of these is true.

First, the Armenian Republic was confronted with major and insuperable problems, internal and external, which no political party could have solved. It survived only while the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were in disarray as a general consequence of World War I. The Armenian Republic was doomed to fall, unfortunately, when the Russian Empire reemerged in the form of Soviet Russia and when the Ottoman Empire reemerged in the guise of the Turkish Republic. No Armenian government and no political party could have stood up to these two powers once they resolved their internal crises and turned against Armenia.

Secondly, Armenian Bolsheviks did not cause the downfall of the Armenian Republic. The Armenian Republic fell to the force of the Red Army sent by Lenin and Stalin, an army which, typically, brought Quislings (Vasak Sunis) in its baggage train. Without the backing of Soviet power, the handful of Armenians in the baggage of the Red Army could never taken over or have controlled Armenia.

Third, Armenians in Bolshevik dominated Armenia did not suddenly and magically turned into Bolsheviks. Communists were always a minority in Armenia. That is why the communists had to rule by force and repression. The vast majority of people merely went along to get along. Furthermore, some Armenians Communists proved themselves, with the loss of their lives in the Stalinist purges, to be true Armenian patriots.

Forth, what we thought or did in the diaspora had little or no affect on the course of events in Armenia. Some few Armenians in America were indeed pro-Communist, as were many Americans no matter what their ethnic background. Most Armenians merely accepted the de facto situation and tried to make the best of it as they had under the tsars, the shahs, and the sultans. Others, as we know, went into opposition.

Several recent books by former KGB agents point out, and I believe it to be true, that the KGB's attempt to control immigrant communities had absolutely no significant affect on the outcome of the Cold War. In particular, we now know by objective evidence that our squabbles and divisions in America had little if any affect on the course of events even in Armenia. The infighting was a pitiful waste of time and energy, deflecting the community from dealing with the real issue, how to organize and maintain a viable Armenian community in the diaspora.

Even if these false myths were true, the times have changed. With the independence of Armenia, the whole community is now confronted with the necessity of devising policies to fit the new reality. The old quarrels certainly have no meaning today. People should be judged on their vision of the future not on their perceived mistakes in the past.

Archbishop Mesrob correctly observes (in my opinion because of longstanding dedication to these myths) that the Armenians in America have developed two different cultures and are mutually intolerant. That cultural gap, and that hostility, must be bridged if administrative unity of the Armenian Church in America is to come about; and, if administrative unity comes about, if the merger will succeed and not just bring about more problems.

The Archbishop then goes on to give a rather thorough exposition of the unity negotiations which began with the visit to America of His Holiness Vazken I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, in 1968. Archbishop Mesrob maintains that the Prelacy in these negotiations stressed the necessity of "mutual love and respect," and viewed unity as the outcome of cooperation. The Diocesan representatives, he argues, stressed legalities and "technicalities." In any case, the Archbishop argues, the Prelacy is now a mature organization, widely recognized throughout the world, and it is demeaning and unrealistic to treat it otherwise.

To provide documentation on the course of the unity negotiations, the book contains the Guidelines for the Unification of the Armenian Church in America agreed to by the negotiators, most of the correspondence and communications between the negotiators, as well as most of the resolutions regarding unity passed by the Prelacy's National Representative Assembly over the past several years. There is also a resum‚ of the comments made by many of the Prelacy parishes as they studied, in accordance with the Guidelines, the proffered bylaws of a united diocese. Most revealing of the author's own attitude, and perhaps of the members of the church he leads, are excerpts from his addresses delivered to the National Representative Assembly in 1987 and 1995.

In his 1987 address, the Archbishop said:

"During these same years, when attempts at unity were being pursued between the two Armenian American dioceses, sister churches endeavored and succeeded in becoming united. In July 1983, the unification of two [branches of the] Presbyterian churches was consecrated. In various parts of the world, many churches are joining together. However, they differ from us in one aspect. When they wish to join together, they already begin to love and respect each other. They don't raise the issues of recognition or non-recognition, they establish new churches together, they develop educational and publishing projects together . . . they pray together so that unity may be realized. . . . [T]hey don't engage in academic disputes, they don't disseminate mistrust and hatred, they don't boycott each other, they live together and accept each other as they are. They don't try to change one another a priori. . . . The road is long; the obstacles, numerous; and the `old man' still lingers among us who is used to the old ways, the division, the isolation."

In his 1995 address, the Archbishop said:

"The election of Catholicos Karekin as Catholicos of All Armenians has brought about an opportunity for our many national and religious aspirations to come closer to realization than at any other time . . . . Within our own Prelacy we realize that we can no longer travel on the old roads. It is now necessary to take bold, sincere, brave and faithful steps in order to take the concept of a united diocese out of academic polemics, and out of the exhaustible committee environment. . . . let us come together in a process of commitment."

Following those words, the Archbishop lays out a program to bring unity through cooperation. He divides his program into three parts, the liturgical and pastoral, the parish, and the diocesan levels. On the diocesan level he proposes (1) the organization of joint meetings and seminars for youth groups and for women, (2) the organization of joint national events and major commemorations, (3) the organization of new parishes together as a part of a pilot project for the future unified diocese, (4) the convening of Prelacy and Diocesan national assemblies in 1997 simultaneously in the same city, to study the draft diocesan bylaws and to set the foundation for complete diocesan unity, and, finally, (5) the convening of a joint national assembly in 1998 as one united diocese.

In fact, the Archbishop proposes the establishment of an archdiocese in North America with as many as nine sub-dioceses in the east, the west, and in Canada. Certainly this radical idea must be carefully analyzed.

Finally, Archbishop Mesrob ends his book with these words,

"As we approach the Centennial of the Armenian Church in America established by Khrimian Hyrig in 1898, and the 1700th anniversary of [the establishment of] Christianity in Armenia, let us proclaim our diocesan unity as our gift to history, our forefathers, and for the future of our church and nation."

Surely, if we compare the spirit of the recently published Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese, with this history of The Armenian Church in America by Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, we can conclude that unity of the Armenian church in North America, both administrative and spiritual, is a distinct possibility if the mutual hostilities within the community have not become so ingrained, and established power structures so defensive, as to prevent rational discourse and goodwill efforts to find a just solution to a longstanding and vexing problem.

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January 8, 1996

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