Project Canterbury

Anglican Ordination of Armenian Clergy.

By Bedros Hagopian.

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1926.

It was a dark and troubled period, the nineties, in the life of the Armenian Church on the American continent. A Church which had maintained herself against the Roman Empire in the first decade of her existence (See Eusebius, Eccles. Hist. Bk. IV., Ch. 3.), against the Persian Empire, notably in the war of 451 and those succeeding it till the rise of Islam, against the Arab invasions and the Seljouks and the Ottoman Turks, was not able to take care of her few thousand members in the peaceful environment of the New World.

The first Armenian church in the United States was built in Worcester and was consecrated on the feast of the Epiphany in 1891, when there were only four to five thousand Armenians in the whole of the States, but toward the end of that decade the number had suddenly jumped to thirty thousand, due to the massacre and the political persecutions of 1895-96 in Turkey. And here they were in a land altogether friendly, yet in a land totally foreign in its mode of life and work, and among a people with whom they could not talk nor in talking could they convey the right motive and meaning. The Armenians, a hand full of them, accustomed to Oriental ways, were confronting a Western people en masse in their own habitat, naturally in a terrific majority, and prejudged already toward the foreigner.

The Armenians, accustomed to church-going morning and evening, seven days a week, had not been inside of a church for years in a violently demoralizing and destructive environment. A people, each of whom had a trade or business of his own, had become wage earners in a complex industrial system, had become aliens and illiterate.

These destructive factors in the new environment, both in the social and in the industrial sphere, were so potent—far more destructive because of their novelty than for any inherent or apparent immorality—that few characters were strong enough to remain in their original integrity. This was all the more difficult when they were looked upon as outlandish illiterates, and were treated as cattle in the factory and outlawed on the streets, mostly because of their ignorance of the language spoken and the social conventions than for any real criteria of culture.

Thus the social and the economic barrier added to that of language in a wholly novel environment, was too great to be overcome even in the field of religious activities, especially in the Episcopal churches, which evinced generous sympathies, local and sporadic though they were. The religious life of the immigrant Armenians went to pieces in the further absence of the compulsion of tradition and family ties, because the majority of them were without homes. The clergy that were sent over to shepherd this scattered flock were as ill-adapted for their work in the new environment as their charges, and generally made a mess of things, so much so that a church like St. Paul’s in Boston (to mention but one instance) had to deny them the privilege of holding their services there any longer.

It was under such sad and hopeless circumstances that the Supreme Catholicos of the Church of Armenia, one of the most beloved and capable of all those who have occupied the apostolic chair at Etchmiadzin, wrote his Pastoral Letter No. 968, dated September 25, 1897, in answer to an appeal from the Armenians at Worcester. It reads in part: “And as to your asking of us a list of eligible bishops and archimandrites for the Prelacy (of the Province of America)  we have it continually in mind, but be it said that it is indeed difficult to find one worthy and well-qualified and at the same time willing to be sent over to carry out the duties of such an office in that new world where so many adverse winds continually do blow” (See Year Book for 1913, p. 118).

The need of capable clergy was imperative and immediate. There were not many, especially among the bishops, who had the necessary administrative ability and the knowledge of English combined, who could be, withal, willing to leave their own dioceses and friends in the home land and come to these parts among a strange people for the shepherding of a few thousand scattered members of the Mother Church, after the massacres of 1895-96 and exile had reduced their ranks in Armenia.

Fortunately for these sheep without shepherds, even in those dark days the Episcopal Church had taken the place of a nurse, unpleasant local incidents notwithstanding. Not only had she opened her doors for Armenian services but also had encouraged them materially to have their own churches and promised help in the preparation of new clergy in the seminaries.

At this time a certain young Armenian, Mr. Selian, a well-known figure in the Episcopal circles in Boston, was by their help already studying at Cambridge for the priesthood. He had written to the Catholicos about his ordination and had received an answer. The publication of a certain part of that letter has furnished the motive for this brief paper. It reads:

“To my mind even ten shepherds more still with difficulty would take care of the flock and guard the suckling lambs of the Church of Armenian, but is it possible to add to the clergy there? Are there any in that land trained and worthy for the priesthood? If there be any educated men and of approved conduct, who definitely have the calling for such a spiritual office, of course I would like to see them in Holy Orders, especially if their wives are also well-educated and pious. An Anglican (Episcopal) priest of Boston has proposed to the Bishop of Washington [Henry Yates Satterlee] whether it would be possible to ordain (Episcopally) worthy members of the Church of Armenia for the priesthood of that Church. Taking this for an occasion, the Bishop has sent us a letter for an opinion on this and on the further condition, namely: that the priest (ordained by him) be officially recognized, should he ever return to the homeland, by the head of the Church of Armenia, because, he says ‘We recognize the Armenian Church as a sister Church.’ It seems to us that the good Bishop is not well acquainted with the liberalism of the Church of Armenia. When the Roman Catholic Armenian clergy return to the National Church, Ormanian, for example, and other archimandrites, we receive all such according to their ranks, without reordination. Similarly with converts from the Greek Church.” [Vartabed Ormanian was a graduate of the Propaganda, who returned to the Armenian Church and late on became Patriarch of Constantinople.]

The letter ends with this most important sentence: “I permit you full liberty in receiving ordination at the hands of the Anglican Bishop.” It is dated June 19, 1897.

It may be assumed that the Catholicos wrote to the Bishop of Washington giving his views on the subject. I wrote to the present Bishop of the same diocese (providentially my Bishop as well, who has generously transferred me to the jurisdiction of the Armenian Church, after my graduation from the General Theological Seminary this May) for a search of the papers of the former Bishop Satterlee, but nothing has come to light, although all the files have not been examined yet. But be that as it may, what I have given in my quotation above is the most authoritative and final opinion as to the acceptability of Anglican ordinations, and that even when the ordinee is an Armenian and for the Armenian Church. Taking this as a basis, would not the Episcopal Church in America take some official action in Convention assembled, for an understanding with the Church of Armenia in America?

The Armenian Church and people in America need able clergymen trained in this country, otherwise there is a grave danger of extinction. While the last fifteen years have seen a marked improvement, it is only apparent and due to temporary causes. Adjustment is not easy in any field, least of all in the national religious field. Most of the clergy being trained on the other side, and many being too old for aggressive pastoral work, the period of realignment has perhaps been longer and more disruptive than necessary. The social, economic, and other environmental changes in this country are so different and have so vitally affected the people, that unless a new order of clergy is supplied, the Armenian Church may fall into complete ruin in another generation. The depleted ranks of the Church people are no longer replenished by fresh immigration, and the people already here gradually are falling out of the Church. On the other hand, the young who are growing up here are not growing under the influence of the Church either, because no one seems to be much interested in them, and there are no Sunday Schools or Church societies to speak of. The Church in Armenia was a militant organization fighting for her very life in a hostile environment as well as for the life of its nationals; the Church in America is an institution, touching the life of its members only at certain points, and the environment is at least nominally Christian. These are telling factors.

The Armenian Church in America must not disintegrate, nor must it remain in its present sickly condition. At least a hundred thousand people, with wonderful capacities for religion and spiritual life, must not perish for lack of competent priests and bishops—and this in a Christian country and under the shadow of the Episcopal Church and within reach of her avowed friendship. These people must not be left a prey for the many evils of the new environment that eat out the life of a community. They must have efficiency religious ministration and guidance. The Armenian Church has an immense store house of spiritual wealth compared to which the oil reservoirs of Mesopotamia are but a rain pool; it can give much toward the spirit of true worship; its offices are varied and wonderful, its services for festal days are the creation of an unsurprising religious genius, where the best of the East and of the West has found its fullest expression. These are big words, but they are not lightly spoken.

May the day come soon when the Church of Armenia, manned by a learned and sanctified clergy, will once more touch the life of her children at all points and minister to all their spiritual needs! Maranatha!

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