The wind beneath our wings: remembering Archbishop Yeghishe Serpazan

By Harry Hagopian
March 23, 2016

We learned with heavy hearts last week that Yeghishe Serpazan, Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the UK from 1982 till his retirement in 2000 had passed away in New York.

As often happens in such instances, many images of this man and his ministry over nine decades flashed through my mind’s eye. They were not inflated images, nor concocted ones even, but rather small and cherished moments that are a personal witness to this man of the cloth.

The words that came immediately to mind were these: “May the angels lead you into paradise: may the martyrs receive you at your coming, and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have everlasting rest” (Antiphon In Paradisum).

Yeghishe Serpazan was a priest with an imbedded and contagious faith who hinted at times of the greats of the Armenian Church – the likes of Catholicos Karekin Hovsepiants, Patriarch Shnork Kaloustian or Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan. His faith sprang not so much from an ethereal sophistry as it did from a warm humility. True, he could be impatient and quite cross at times, as we all are, after all, but the eyes are always mirrors of the soul and his eyes (not unlike those of Catholicos Karekin I of blessed memory incidentally) often lit with a warm belief in God as much as in the neighbour.

But Yeghishe Serpazan also possessed a stentorian voice (almost Homeric) that commanded attention from the altar or in social gatherings. And talking of social gatherings, he also had a hearty, ecumenical appetite that enjoyed food. In fact, two of his favourite restaurants in Kensington – not far from the vicarage – were Italian and Persian.

Yeghishe Serpazan also had a remarkable memory that narrated so many old stories, from the Armenian genocide of 1915 to his own experiences at Holy See of Etchmiadzin in Armenia and later in the UK. He often encouraged me with my CRAG-related (Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide) work  whenever he felt that I was weakening on the principle message.

One of Serpazan’s strengths was his pastoral demeanour: the man hated all sorts of Armenian community ructions and simply – naively some would add – wanted to avoid being sucked into their vortex. How could he though when he was the Primate of the Church? After all, is this not a challenge for many church leaders too? He often discussed with me that he had enough of all those shenanigans, but this was also coupled with a sense of humour that chortled its way across any room. It was almost him saying that you don’t only create a new Armenia every time two Armenians meet anywhere in the world (my paraphrase on William Saroyan) but that you also get an argument between them!

I knew this man for quite a long period. After he retired from his responsibilities in the UK, and was replaced by (now Archbishop) Nathan Hovhannisian, we often spent time in front of the fireplace at the London Visitor's Hotel (LVH). He would come down from his room with his daily newspaper and we would then discuss so many stories over a cuppa – a raconteur who held you in the spell of his prodigious memory! He loved sitting in front of the fireplace at the LVH and often asked me or Steve Mouradian (the LVH owner) for that matter to shovel more coal on the fire so it blazed higher. Of course, he had his favourite green lounge chair.

I also recall that he loved his regular morning breakfasts with Paul Gulbenkian and Bernard Andonian when they ran the law firm in Kensington. It was a ritual for him: he would promptly go for his daily constitutional walk in Holland Park at 7am and then join both lawyers for a chat over breakfast! It is where many Armenian issues were debated ‘legally’ and I must admit that I never managed to muscle in on this threesome!

Eschatology is quite an intricate theological discipline that deals with death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. It is beyond the remit of this reflection to wade into those waters and share some of his thoughts on life, death and the afterlife! So as I sit to write this short (and personal) reflection to Armenian and non-Armenian through Ekklesia, I put in front of me the alarm clock he had given me as a memento before he left for Philadelphia – and the one I still use by my bedside as it pings BBC Radio 4 Today every morning for me.

Why will the Serpazan be missed by many friends? If for nothing else, then because he was a humble man who won you over with his rather intricate simplicity. It is not always the case with our clerics!  RIP-RIG: I too pray for the repose of his soul.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly 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, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net - follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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