Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian on his 50th birthday

By Harry Hagopian
November 13, 2013

You see that a person is justified by good works and not by faith in isolation. - James 2.24.

Fifty: that is a docile five followed by a bullying nought! And for many people, it is a new milestone that is either met with a joyous 'wow' luxuriating in acquired experiences, or a more contemplative 'hmm' that is fearful of impending senescence. For much as 50 nowadays is nothing more that the new 40, it still is all of half a century that takes its toll on many men and women.

So it is with this idea firmly embedded in my mind - whether with a wow or a hmm - that I wish Vahan Serpazan a happy birthday as he spends some quality time with his mother, as well as with kith and kin, in the Big Apple! But it is not only one birthday that coincides with this time of the year for him. This is also the second anniversary of his ordination as bishop at Holy Etchmiadzin and almost four years since he first came to London - forsaking his books and the sedentary excellence of his academic life to become the appointed shepherd of a somewhat unruly and disorderly community.

I have previously written a short reflection on Vahan Serpazan (, so I would like to pick up where I left last and follow on with some fresh observations.

Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian is Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and President of the Council of Oriental Orthodox Churches in the United Kingdom and Ireland. One image that still associates itself to my mind every time I think of him is that of a man who continues to kick dust.

Indeed, as I look around me, I realise that we now have a church whose diocesan format is becoming clearer. Not only is there an assembling structure emerging, but the mission parishes in Cardiff, Dublin and Birmingham are getting stronger, too, and the not-always-healthy nexus between church and community has been decoupled in London; so much so that both components of the old equation are coming out of it healthier. In fact, his frenetic activities (not least with youth work) remind me of yet another verse from St Paul, addressing the people of Galatia in the highlands of central Anatolia: Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6.9).

So where does our bishop head now? Well, we have already witnessed his many pilgrimages and group travels to the Holy Land, to Turkey as well as to the Mekhitarist Order at San Lazzaro in Venice. In fact, the visits to this Armenian islet are quite meaningful in that Lazarus is the patron saint of the poor and sick and the Catholic Church now also has as pontiff a man who took the name of Francis (of Assisi). Perhaps one can hope for another common bond between believers here?

Moreover, we have witnessed an abundance of deacons. All one needs to do is attend Divine Liturgy at St Sarkis on Sunday to notice the large number of deacons at the altar. In fact, there are serious traffic jams some times! Mind you, the same cannot be said of St Yeghiche simply because the space there is much bigger and therefore less congested too.

I was fortunate enough to work closely with Archbishop Nathan on ecumenical matters during a whole decade. Together, we put the Armenian Church on the ecumenical map in the UK, and it is my hope, as a lowly ad hoc consultant, to continue a journey that is quintessential to our apostolic faith. After all, Armenian ethnocentrism, ecclesial or otherwise, often translates into haughty navel-gazing and does us all a disservice as a people, a community and ultimately a nation.

In all candour, I have no idea how long Vahan Serpazan will serve in his ministry in London. But I believe it is important that we Armenians make hay while the sun shines and work with this man as he strives to undergird the fundaments of our faith in the UK and Ireland. And those can be summarised for me as unity, liberty and also charity – a synonym for love.

As Vahan Serpazan celebrates his 50th birthday, I will simply quote from the fourth book of the Jewish Torah: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Numbers 6.24-26).

Finally, let me indulge in a musical aside. From one pianist to another, we both might perhaps acknowledge that Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony required the addition of a third movement for his posthumous composition to be deemed complete. This analogy also stands true today for Vahan Serpazan as he kicks further dust and embraces ... The Big 50!


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is

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