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Unity in the Armenian Church: Will we live to see it?

By  Arakel Arisian
ASO President

For many years the Armenian people have been talking about the reunification of the Armenian Apostolic Church.  The visits of both Catholicoi to Fresno, in 1996, were filled with words of unity and cooperation between the Diocese and the Prelacy.  Unfortunately, the split still exists and many argue that the gap between the two sides is widening.  The Armenian people and their Church have endured countless invasions and wars, a genocide, and a seventy year communist occupation.  Surviving all that, the church still binds the seven million Armenians in the world together.  Yet at the same time the church itself is divided.

What many Armenians fail to see is the nature of the division in the Church.  It has nothing to do with beliefs or religious theology.  As His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia notes,  “We are one people and one church, but within that one and the same church we have two jurisdictional entities.” Another misconception about the split is that the disputes over jurisdiction exist all over the World, but in reality they only exist in a few countries (United States, Greece, Iran, and Syria.)  Additionally, the division was not caused by having two Catholicoi.  The Armenian Church has had two, and as many as three, Catholicoi since 1441.  The origins of the division come from the conflict between Armenians over the emergence of a Soviet Armenia. None of that should matter now that there is free and independent Armenia.

So what stands between the church and reunification?  The Status Quo.  Many people don’t see a reason to push unity.  For them it makes no difference whether the church has one administration or two.  The older generations have grown up through the years of tension between the sides, making them apprehensive of reunification. Many people hold grudges and feel that split is still justified.  There also is a vast majority of people who like the idea of unity but at the same time refuse to make the effort.  Yet another issue, that of the power structures, makes the situation more complicated.  The fear that one side or one person has to lose power creates  a power struggle.  All of the above mentioned hinder the reunification process.

So why should we have unity and how can we account for people’s concerns?  First, despite the fact that both Catholicoi are in accordance with the idea of unity, internal solidarity is still missing.  Moreover, there is a barrier between the two sides of the Armenian Apostolic church.  How can the Church effectively use its resources if isn’t working together?  Many more important issues, such as religious education, are not being addressed.  The split also creates confusion about the question of who leads.  How does it look to people outsides the church to have two people claiming to be the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church?  How does it look to have two Armenian Apostolic Churches next to each other separated by a chain-link fence?  These are important questions about the image the church presents.  That image is what is either going to draw people or turn them off.  Finally, unity can mean many things.  It does not mean that one church in a community needs to be torn down and everyone needs to attend the other; the two churches can continue to serve their parishioners.  People donít have to be afraid that they are going to lose the church they love so much.

Understanding the need for an inner restructuring we need to look at possible solutions.  The paramount step is to have both administrative sides engage in a process of collaboration, cooperation, and consolidation of resources.  This means that both sides need to open up and work together to improve the church.  Even if only this step is made, the church will be much better off.  From that point on the two administration should find the most equitable and effective way to bring the church together.  For example, in the United States, there are two prelates and two primates-one for the Eastern US and one for the Western US.  In order to allocate jurisdiction equally, the United States could be divided into four parts with each of the leaders having jurisdiction.  As for the Catholicoi, they could find a justifiable way to share jurisdiction, just as the two Sees did before the split.
The problem of unity is a very complex one, involving many political and historical issues.  It can be said that the split was a necessary evil for the survival of an Armenian Nation and an Armenian Identity in a time of political and social turmoil.  Now the situation is ideal for reunification, and it is up to the people to go out and make sure it happens.
Granted, it is a process which will take time to solidify.   His Holiness Karekin I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Etchmiadzian said, “Today, when people are so distrustful of one another, it would be an artificial act to come together if you don’t prepare the ground.”  If people embrace change rather than make it more difficult a truly unified Armenian Church is a possibility in our lifetime.