Pontifical Legation of the Western Europe

Synodality and Christian Unity: An Oriental Orthodox Perspective

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian on  January 22 made a presentation at the public lecture series of the “Tillard Chair” of the Institute for Ecumenical Studies of the St. Thomas Aquinas Pontifical University (Angelicum). The “Tillard Chair” at the Angelicum was inaugurated by Cardinal Walter Kasper in 2003 in honor of the renowned French theologian and ecumenist Jean-Marie Tillard, OP (1927-2000). The subject of the lecture was “Synodality and Christian Unity: An Oriental Orthodox Perspective”. Whatch the video 🎬

In his 45 minutes presentation Archbishop Barsamian first spoke about the Armenian Church being part of the family of the Oriental Orthodox or Non-Chalcedonian Churches: the others being Coptic, Syriac, Indian, Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches. These Churches are all national autocephalous (independent) churches and are in communion with each other. They accept only the first three ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus) and reject the Council of Chalcedon. The oriental Orthodox Churches elect their own heads or patriarchs or catholics. From the early days of Christianity, these churches have their own synodical structures.

After these introductory remarks, then Archbishop Barsamian focused on the Armenian Church tradition. First, he explained the functional structure of the Armenian Church which has been primarily based on the canons and established traditions of the Armenian Church. It was formulated over the centuries. One of the most important aspects of the Armenian Church administration has been the conciliar system. In other words, the administrative, as well as doctrinal, liturgical and canonical norms are set by a council, collective and participatory decision-making process, and after approval of the catholicos, decisions are being implemented. Conciliarity in decision-making is a significant aspect in the Books of Acts chapter 15 (Apostles meeting in Jerusalem).

During his presentation Archbishop Barsamian deepened his explanations on the development of the synodical system of the Armenian Church. First, he spoke about the apostolic origins of the Armenian Church then the conversion of Armenia as a Christian Nation in 301. According to some historic sources the appointment of St. Gregory as the chief bishop (catholicos) of Armenia took place at an annual gathering of the royal and the feudal detachments under the command of the nobility. This is an indication that the early fourth century practice in Armenia was the following: the king of Great Armenia proposed the name of the candidate of the office of the chief bishop (catholicos) of Armenia, and the nobility gathered expressed their consent. This practice continued until the appointment of Sahak as the chief bishop (catholicos) of Armenian in 389. Sahak was appointed by a council-of-the-realm.

Catholicos Nerses I the Great (353-373) convened the first Armenian Church council around 354 in Ashtishat. During this Council decisions were made to establish monastic and charitable institutions, and also reform disciplines on some moral issues in the country.

The second Ecclesiastical National Assembly of the Armenian Church took place in Shahapivan, in 444. In most probability Hovsep Hoghmetzi (440-452) was elected the catholicos at this assembly. During this assembly the participants (bishops, priests, deacons, feudel lords, and the people) adopted the canons of the Council of Nicaea and those of the local councils of the fourth century. The Council of Shahapivan was very important in the history of the Armenian Church, since it was the first known gathering where, next to the clergy, also different ranks of lay people participated in order to set or adopt church canons. This was also the first council of the Armenian Church, during which a catholicos was elected. The Council of Shahapivan served as a precedent for subsequent Armenian Church councils or assemblies, where with the clergy also lay people participated.

Reflecting on the present hierarchical structure of the Armenian Church, Archbishop Barsamian  gave the following explanation: the Catholicos of All Armenians seated in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (established in the beginning of the 4th century) has been the Supreme head of the Armenian Church; the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia (established in the 13th century in the Kingdom of Cilicia and then moved to Lebanon in 1930); the Patriarchate of Jerusalem (established in 14th century); the Patriarchate of Constantinople (established in 1461); there are also Armenian Church dioceses in Armenia, Artsakh and all around the world.

Then a detailed presentation was given on the current ecclesial structure of the Armenian Church. According to the Armenian Church tradition, layman not only took part in electoral councils, but also sometimes in legislative councils. However, the participation of layman in the church councils didn’t mean disregard of the canonical authority of the bishops, recognized and defined by general councils, and canons observed in the church. Relevant to this point, Archbishop Barsamian mentioned the explanation of the late Catholicos of All Armenians His Holiness Karekin I, in an interview with journalist Giovanni Guita in the late 1990s:

“People often speak of the Armenian Church as a democratic church. Personally, I am not inclined to apply such sociological categories to the life of the Church. The Church is neither a state nor a parliament, and we don’t make decisions in it with vote. Of course, on the administrative end, that is how we resolve problems. But the Christian faith, its preaching and its application to everyday life are not things that can be put in relation to the duty a state has to perform its own functions, since the exercising of authority in the Church must always remain intact because the Church is the sacrament of sacraments.” (Cited in Between Heaven and Earth, A Conversation with his Holiness Karekin I, by Giovani Guita; New York, 2000, p164.)

In his presentation, Archbishop Barsamian continued speaking about different Armenian church assemblies: the National Ecclesiastical Assembly; the Bishops Synod; the Ecclesiastical Representative assembly; the Supreme Spiritual Council; the Diocesan assembly; and the parish Assembly. He gave a detailed explanation about the set-up, structure, and jurisdiction of each of these assemblies.

At the conclusion of this lecture, Fr. Hyacinthe Destivelle, director of the Ecumenical Institute of the University thanked Archbishop Barsamian for his very interesting and informative presentation.