Can past history cede to future hopes? Armenian Orthodox - Catholic relations

By Harry Hagopian
January 17, 2017

It is a plain fact that Armenians are proud to remind the world that they adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD during the reign of King Tiridates III. In other words, this decision (call it adoption, conversion or even a royal prerogative) occurred twelve years before Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire.

 But despite the upbeat nature of this faith-based decision, the fact remains that Christianity was no longer a mirror image of its earliest apostolic days. There were increasingly serious ructions within a growing worldwide Christian community and it was some seven centuries later, in 1054 AD, that a major schism took place when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael I excommunicated each other. Although I tend to question the legality of this excommunication, not least because the French Pope had died three months earlier and the letter of excommunication was delivered by his Cardinal. It could therefore be construed ultra vires but the fact remains that the incremental souring of relations between the two lungs of Christianity had now become quite acrid. And much as such divisions, including this major East-West Schism, were challenged (for example during the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and again the Council of Basel in 1439), they took root, festered over time and insulated Orthodox, Catholic, Reform and Free Churches within their own different liturgies, theologies, rituals and closed spaces.

 This state of affairs continued in this unbound manner until the 20th century when a fresh impetus for closer collaboration swept across many churches. One high point was the rescinding by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in1964 of the mutual excommunications. But another part was due to the strengthening of the ecumenical movement spearheaded by the World Council of Churches (since 1948) and its affiliates. But I suggest it was also a fact that some Churches were starting to feel undermined in their own values, not only by other faith groups but also by an increasing sense of grassroots disenchantment and alienation from faith.

Such softer realities were also reflected in relations between the Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. And the two stars of such a narrowing of differences for me were Pope John-Paul II (now canonised) and Catholicos Karekin I (who died in 1999). Their meeting in Rome in 1996 laid the foundations for closer relations. They called for “a more effective witness to the Gospel, [and for] mutual respect for the fidelity of the faithful in their own Churches and Christian traditions.” Those relations were further consolidated when Pope John-Paul II visited Armenia in 2001. They have been solidified considerably under Pope Francis and Catholicos Karekin II.

In my opinion, such a drawing together of two Apostolic Churches is a sign of living hope. In fact, had it not been for the Persian War in 451 AD, the Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches might well have ended up on the same side of the argument. After all, some Armenian bishops had contested in 662 AD the Armenian decision to opt for Monophysitism (that Jesus Christ had only one, rather than two natures) but their challenge was overruled by the then supreme spiritual leader of the Armenians. So the involvement of Armenia in this war with Sassanid Persia (history records the Battle of Avarayr was fought on 26 May 451 AD on the Avarayr Plain in Vaspurakan at the very time of the Council of Chalcedon) meant that the Armenian Church did not participate in the Council of Chalcedon and did not make a definitive choice in terms of its Christological imperative.

Mind you, there are other issues as well that scar Christian relations, not least the sensitive matter of the Uniate Churches. However, does the reader think that most Christians – no matter their background, denomination or location – are truly fixated on such hair-splitting sophistry? If anything, such bickering alas alienates the grassroots who see their leaders being far more more interested in protecting their own turves than in tending their flocks.

So at a time when the whole world is challenged by many perils, is it not high time for church leaders to put aside their age-long doctrinal differences, let alone take a pause from their power-centred or economy-driven priorities, and strive to draw together in earnest? Is it not time to go beyond appealing to Scriptural verses and trite statements? Should we not forsake what I dub ‘the paroxysms of political ecumenism’ and think more solemnly instead on overcoming old divisions and working together for the glory of a loftier goal?

Mind you, I am certainly not advocating unity in the sense of uniformity. I neither expect nor wish all those churches with their age-long traditions and colours to become drab and monochromatic. Rather, I would wish to see this unity made manifest through diversity by celebrating those very riches and traditions in a way that engenders harmony and conviviality. A little bit like a family where the different members might disagree, quibble and even row vehemently with each other over all things serious or petty but stay united and atomic in their relations.

This is how I personally interpret Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:21. So will we ever witness such openness and outreach? Or will we remain cocooned in our safe but anaerobic spaces? The answer to this tiny question might well sway the number of believers of all hues and ages either coming into the faith or walking away from it. 

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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 and 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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