© 1995 Dennis R. Papazian

A Pastoral Letter to the Armenian Faithful

A Review Essay

by Dennis R. Papazian, Ph.D.


Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, A Pastoral Letter to the Armenian Faithful, New York, St. Vartan Press, 1995. Pp 1-43.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the American Diocese of the Armenian Church, has written an important document in the great tradition of Armenian clerical leadership. Historically, our great church leaders have issued "toukts," or "pastoral letters," to enlighten the faithful in times of crisis and to help them chart a course for the future. Archbishop Khajag's toukt is an overview of the changing conditions in the Armenian world today and a tightly reasoned argument in favor of the unity of the Armenian Church in America, here and now, without reservations, on the occasion of the visit of His Holiness, Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Archbishop Khajag's "pastoral letter" is must reading for all people, whether they belong to the Diocese or the Prelacy, who have a concern for the future of the Armenian church. At minimum, it should bring about a new way of looking at an old, intractable problem. At maximum, it may lead us to renewed life.

What separates this booklet, this "pastoral letter," from so many serious works written on the subject, is that it is forward looking and not backward looking. It is enlightened and not narrowly partisan. It is generous and not faultfinding. It is rational and at the same time spiritual. It is also written by a man who must experience the consequences of his decisions and actions and not by a common pundit who can walk off and leave the church in shambles if his advice is faulty.

Archbishop Khajag has no personal axe to grind and perhaps a lot to lose. There is no guarantee that the Archbishop, a man of character, intelligence and learning, would be the Primate of a united diocese in America. He is a man in a position of respect and authority who, through unity, might lose the high position he now holds. It is for these reasons--that he looks to the future and not the past, that his message is rational as well as spiritual, and that his own high position might be at stake--that his pastoral letter must be taken seriously. This is no ordinary statement that can be ignored or lightly cast off as more spilt ink in a lost cause.

The administrative split in the Armenian Church in America dates back over sixty years, and the search for unity dates back over fifty years to the attempts of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan who, being as usual too far ahead of his times, was misunderstood and suffered dire consequences for his efforts. He lost his position as Primate and was denied confirmation when he was legally, and rightly, elected Patriarch of Jerusalem. Rarely has one of our clergymen, particularly such a great one, paid such a high price for his sincere attempts to right a wrong. His life was a tragedy of immense proportion both for himself personally and for the church he loved and tried to serve.

More recent efforts at unity go back over twenty-five years. These attempts, in their turn, have also proven barren. The failure can be attributed to many things: the psychological wounds left by the original causes and events of the split, the bad memories of the struggle over church properties, families divided, the influence of Armenian political parties in the governance of the church, personal grudges, goals and aspirations, the animosities engendered by frustration, cultural differences, and the lack of a coherent vision of the future. Chief of all, however, has been the definition of the relationship of the American dioceses to the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia. The members of the Prelacy have demanded a "special relationship" between a united American diocese and the institution to which for so many years, since the 1950s, they have given their allegiance and from which they have received intellectual enlightenment and spiritual nourishment. The unity committees' negotiators had rightly recognized that special relationship in an early document, a clause which, unfortunately, took six years to be approved in Etchmiadzin. High respect for the Catholicate of Cilicia should be nothing new for any part of the Armenian Church in America. As Archbishop Khajag writes,

"Isn't the Catholicate of Cilicia as much of a patrimony of the Armenian people as the Holy See of Etchmiadzin and the Apostolic See of Jerusalem and the See of Constantinople? Is it possible to forget that, prior to the controversies, the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia was generously funded by our Diocese; the first dean of the seminary of Antelias, Archbishop Shahe Kasbarian, had been a longtime pastor here and the locum tenens of our Diocese? Or the great Catholicos Karekin I Hovsepian, our former primate? In the days prior to the split in our Diocese, the faithful, although subject to the jurisdiction of Holy Etchmiadzin, were not in any way hesitant about helping Cilicia, because they felt that Cilicia was also theirs. . . . Our people are ready and willing to support their historic religious institutions."
Archbishop Khajag's argument is that the world, including the Armenian world, has changed dramatically since 1933 and even 1956. Eastern Europe is free, the Soviet Union has fallen, Armenia is independent, the Armenian diaspora has grown, the Armenians of America no longer live in ethnic ghettos or inner cities, Armenians are scattered in small numbers in various towns and cities across the nation, assimilation is rampant, traditions are shattered, and the church is in danger of becoming irrelevant. "We must unite today, while we are still relatively strong and can therefore influence the course of history," contends Archbishop Khajag. If we wait, "the union of two weak segments . . . will not produce a strong entity."

The causes of the split, of course, are known to most people in positions of responsibility. They can recite the details much like a lawyer in court. The general outline, of course, is known to even more people. The fall of the first Armenian republic to Bolshevik arms, following as it did on the genocide itself, left the Armenian people in total disarray. A few welcomed Bolshevism as the wave of the future, as did so many in Western countries. A larger group decided to seek to work with the new rulers of Armenia--as they had worked with the tsars of Russia, the shahs of Persia, and the sultans of Turkey--to seek the best deal they could get. A final group, as we know, went into total opposition.

Inasmuch as the Church, since the fall of the last Armenian kingdom, had been the repository of our national life, the struggle to control the church reflected the larger political struggle.

It should also be understood that almost every church which had its See behind the iron curtain witnessed a split in the diaspora, sometime into as many as three or four groups. Thus, the Armenian church was no different. No honest person can claim that accommodation was better or worse than opposition. In my personal view, both were necessary. Some had to work with the regime to moderate it, and others had to oppose it so that the regime could not use the church as its own instrument. As in any struggle, there were lamentable and inexcusable excesses on all sides. But these excesses had a time and place; they are irrelevant today except in the hearts and minds of those who insist on living in the past.

Archbishop Khajag, a relatively young man, perhaps does not realize how many of the older generation insist on living in the past. The past is as real to them as the present is to most of us. This state of being is not rare in immigrant communities. Those in the homeland can change with the times since it is they, of logically necessity, who define what it means to be an Armenian. Those in the diaspora, cut off by politics and distance from the homeland, see their faith realized by being true to the past, no matter how unreal and irrelevant that past is today. It is the youth, who have neither influence, who are cast adrift. They cannot find significance in old quarrels and go about their own way seeking a good life for themselves. We can see them daily drifting away from the church and from the Armenian community. As to people over 50, it is rare that they can change with the times. Even if our church were united, can these people learn to live together? Certainly that is a cause of some concern.

Yes, it is the young and the young in mind who are our best hope for progress. As Jesus said to the young man who first wanted to "bury" his parents before following Jesus into the future, "Let the dead bury the dead." Those who live in the past are dead. Only those who live for the future are truly alive.

What the Armenian community needs today is a forward looking leadership, a leadership which will seek to control our future to the extent possible and not to be passive reactors to external change. Archbishop Khajag believes that unity in the church will free up the thinking of our leaders so that they concentrate on present-day problems rather than on past problems. If Armenians were a normal ethnic group, I would have difficulty sharing his optimism. But Armenians, like the Jews, are historically a diaspora people. As many Armenians live outside the homeland as within it. The Armenian diaspora has survived for centuries. There is the possibility, under optimal conditions, that our diaspora could survive into the indefinite future. This is a point worth serious reflection.

Finally, one must deal with the major issue which is imposing itself on our thinking today. What about Armenia? We know that independent Armenia has attracted not only our older generation but also our youth. Young people whom we thought thoroughly assimilated go to Armenia and return home filled with ethnic pride and a deep affection for the motherland. We should all understand that it is Armenia which should supply the physical, emotional, and intellectual substance to keep our diaspora nourished and alive. This tie of Armenia with our diaspora youth, as with all of us, must be maintained and expanded if the diaspora is to live.

We have also discovered that Armenia needs to be re-evangelized. Seventy years of Communist rule has left Armenia with a lack of clerical leadership, a lack of churches, a lack of religious learning, seminaries, books, and schools. A united church, argues Archbishop Khajag, is vital to solving this fundamental and critical problem in the life of the Armenian people and the Armenian church. There should be no disagreement on this point.

Armenia to-date, unfortunately, has made only tentative gains in realizing democracy and a free enterprise system; and there are even signs that there may be some retrogression. Many argue that full democracy is not possible until Armenia and Artsakh are in a state of peace. Others argue that the present leadership cannot be trusted to allow full democracy even after there is peace. Some people, wrongly, use this concern to argue against church unity in America. Archbishop Khajag maintains that the political issues in Armenia, whatever they might be, must be dealt with not by the church--whether inside Armenia or in the diaspora--but by the government, the courts, and the people of Armenia. In any case, it is an issue for politicians not churchmen.

I am not so optimistic that unity would bring all the benefits that its proponents anticipate. I have observed the foibles of mankind for too many years to blithely accept their boundless optimism. But one thing I do know--disunity in the church is an anachronism, it is passé it has no meaning or benefit in today's world, it is a stumbling block to concerted action, it is a reflection of times past, it is not healthful for the church, it is the preoccupation of old people with old issues, old arguments, and times past.

Division is nurtured by a sense of helplessness in confronting the future, an attempt to narrow the arena of our lives so that we feel important as big fish in a constantly shrinking pond. Division is a seeking of meaning in life by creating an enemy close at hand, an enemy of our own size, a group we can demonize and then attack. Division is a distraction from reality, from the real issues, from the real world, a retreat to the inane, a surrender to the banal in our lives, a detriment to hope, and a mockery of our faith.

Furthermore, I am not so optimistic that unity will call forth new and enlightened leadership, that it will rid us of self-serving pundits and narrow-minded bureaucrats, that it will cause Armenians in the diaspora and in the homeland to work together for a common future. That would be too much to expect. But one thing I do know, and what we should all know by merely looking around us at empirical and anecdotal evidence, that our present situation is leading us to a dead end and self-destruction. What do we have to lose? It is time for hope not despair. It is time for action, not reaction. It is time to give unity a chance.

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