By Michael Arakelian
On the weekend of February 11 and 12, the Armenian Studies Program offered a one-unit course on the Armenian Church. Fifteen students attended this class with almost everybody realizing, after a short quiz was given to start the class, that they had more to learn about the Armenian Church. Students left the class much more informed on the Armenian Church.
The class was taught by Professor Barlow Der Mugrdechian, who is a Deacon in the Armenian Church and is very knowledgeable on the subject. He treated the students to lectures, slide-shows, movies and a guided tour of St. Paul Armenian Church. Discussions were also held about various controversial issues involving the Armenian Church and its future in America and abroad.
There were many controversial issues that were discussed. The issues were whether the Church should focus on being more nationalistic or religious, the issue of celibacy of the clergy, the shortage of clergy, along with the effects of the Genocide on the Church, the split of the Church and the issue of language in the Armenian Church.
This article focuses on two issues: the split in the Armenian Church and language in the Armenian Church.
Armenians belong to many different Christian denominations; however, this class focused on the original church in Armenia, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Armenia adopted Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. Prior to the Armenian Genocide, Protestant missionaries from England and America were able to convert some Armenians to other denominations.
Today, unfortunately, there exists a split in the Armenian Apostolic Church. For example, the church in the United States is now under two jurisdictions; the Diocese which is affiliated with the Holy See of Etchmiadzin and the Prelacy affiliated with the Holy See of Cilicia. This is one of many current issues that affect the Armenian Church today.
The issue of the split in the Armenian Church in the United States has been a long-standing one (about seventy years). Since the election of a Catholicos Karekin I, and even before when His Holiness Vazken I was Catholicos in the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, there has been talk of unity. Unfortunately, unity has not even come close to occurring. Although attempts were made, neither side did anything to bridge the gap. Members of the Armenian Church would like the problem solved. A few of the students in the class recalled times when they were growing up, citing that talking to members of “the other side” was just not done. In fact, there was much hostility between the two sides. Now, people from each side interact socially all of the time. Among the younger generation, the split does not seem to harm any friendships from being made as they interact constantly and get along fine. The older generation has experienced the same feeling, patching up differences and not worrying about political differences that stem from the split of the Church. This interaction among the people of the Diocese and of the Prelacy seems to be a good start and hopefully a catalyst for the healing process to begin.
Another issue that was discussed in the class was the usage of the Classical Armenian language in the Armenian Church. In the world, there are Armenian Churches in Armenia, America, Canada, India, Brazil, Russia and France to name a few. The Armenian utilized in the church liturgy is different than the every-day spoken language of modern Armenian. Thus, even though Armenian is spoken in the church, it is not the type of Armenian language that is understood by the majority of Armenians around the world. Typically, only scholars use Classical Armenian and the numbers of people who understand it are very few. Sound confusing? This writer is also confused.
Not many people understand the spiritual message of the service unless following along in a book that has the translation in Modern Armenian or the language of choice. But, following along in a book takes away from the symbolism of the service.
There are a couple of solutions to this language barrier if one is a parishioner. First, the person can find a new church that utilizes a language that is understandable to him/her. Or second, the person can do research into the symbolism of the liturgy and memorize its importance and relevance. The first option seems to be a more popular choice these days.
The class differed in opinion on this issue in the Armenian Church in America. At least one person believed that the Armenian language must be preserved in the Armenian Church. However, the student also believed that the classical language should be replaced with the modern day language that is now spoken. Another student did not care whether the language was changed to English, although it might help, but that the congregation should be more involved in the service. For instance, the entire congregation should participate in the singing of the hymns by the choir, so that the congregation becomes more active rather than passive. It has been brought up by many people, mainly non-Armenian speakers that the liturgy should be entirely in English, or for that matter, the language of preference in the respective countries. So far, the leaders of the Armenian Church have ignored this issue stating that the church stay in accordance with tradition and keep the classical language intact during the liturgy.
The split in the Armenian Church continues to be a bane to the faithful of each church. With the approach of the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of the Christianization of Armenia looming near, a big celebration will occur in Armenia and also throughout the Diaspora. The Diaspora consists of all the Armenian Churches not including Armenia. But with the separation of the church in the United States, it seems hard to celebrate. The churches are exactly the same in terms of their theology, yet political differences and leadership quarrels have kept them apart. Only small attempts have been made to heal the split in the Church. If the leaders of the Diocese and the Prelacy put as much effort into healing the division in the Church as they have planning this celebration of Armenia’s Christianity, the celebration might actually have real meaning to it. It is ironic to consider ourselves as Christians, and yet not forgive each other for past transgressions.
The language issue in the Church is yet to be resolved. Some parishes enjoy the Classical Armenian language of the Liturgy and are spiritually fulfilled by it, while others are not. Basically, the fear of changing the language is that the Church would no longer be universal. Certain countries would worship in different languages than others. This scares some people in the Church because they want every Church to be the same and that includes the language that the liturgy is celebrated in. However, this problem should not be handled in this way. Changing the language will not change the essence of the church; it will only change the feelings of people toward the Church. Peoples who do not speak Classical Armenian, whether they are Armenian or non-Armenian will be able to appreciate the religious beliefs expressed through the liturgy.
The Armenian Church has many widely debated issues. It is my hope that 1,700 years of wisdom can guide it through these obstacles.