LOS ANGELES: Bond between Armenian, Episcopal churches intensifies

Episcopal News Service. September 17, 2007 [091707-05]

Pat McCaughan, Senior associate for parish life at St. George's Church in Laguna Hills and senior correspondent for the Episcopal News Service

Fragrant incense mingled with the lilting voices of Armenian and Episcopal choirs as St. John's Episcopal Church on September 15 hosted the 80th anniversary celebration of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America, solidifying a growing bond between the Los Angeles-area churches.

Some worshippers were moved to tears, others reached out in reverence and blessing to touch, some to kiss the gold-threaded robes of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian and Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles during the solemn Evensong procession Saturday into St. John's sanctuary. About 750 of the faithful gathered for the anniversary celebration, characterized by unity and hope, and followed by an outdoor reception beneath a pitched tent.

"Welcome to our house. I feel like we've been adopted by the Armenian Church into the Holy See; we've wandered apart too long," Bruno told the gathering during a sermon frequently interrupted by applause.

Derderian presented Bruno with a hand-carved Armenian stone depicting the cross, the theme of the celebration which was held the day after Holy Cross Day, "in recognition of and appreciation for Bruno's leadership, collaboration with our church [and his] open heart for all," Derderian said.

"His love is for everybody," Derderian said of Bruno. "This is the great gift he has brought to the Christian community and all other denominations. He has always opened doors and hearts in assisting and accommodating the Armenian church, helping us to open churches while helping us maintain our identity, with the respect and recognition of our rich history and traditions."

Ecumenical dialogue: bringing 'peace into hearts of communities'

The anniversary celebration grew out of an ecumenical dialogue between the churches, initiated by Derderian, which has blossomed into an ongoing relationship between leadership and laity, said the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Los Angeles.

"His Eminence has been very intentional in reaching out ecumenically to the various communities; our first dialogue was in November, 2005 and we have been meeting on a fairly regular basis since."

Since an initial gathering of leaders the dialogue has expanded to include youth and women's groups. Committees focusing on religious education, social justice, liturgy and youth ministry have been established and plans are in the works for future collaboration and projects, said Guibord, who has chaired the dialogue group.

The 1,700-year-old Armenian Apostolic Church's roots date to the fourth century, when St. Gregory the Illuminator formally established the church in Armenia. He was raised a Christian in Cappadocia, and was consecrated the first bishop of Armenia by Leontius, the metropolitan of Caesarea. According to tradition, he saw a vision of Christ who told him where to build the church. He is called St. Gregory the Illuminator for enlightening the nations with the light of the Gospel through baptism. The Armenian church broke with the orthodox church after the Council of Chalcedon.

The church's primate is the catholicos of Yejmidzin, Armenia; Karekin II became catholicos in 1999. Like the Episcopal Church, its priests may marry.

The first Armenian Church in the United States was built in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1891. The church has grown with each wave of immigration, particularly after the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and, more recently, because of political unrest in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Derderian said.

The western diocese was officially established November 28, 1927, and encompasses the area west of Mississippi, including Hawaii and Alaska, Derderian said. Headquartered in Burbank, California, it includes more than 50 churches and is the largest outside Armenia. It is believed there are about 300,000 Armenians in Southern California and about one million in the United States.

He and other church leaders recently consecrated a new church in Pasadena and there are plans to break ground for a Burbank cathedral in October, and to build churches in Palm Desert, and possibly in Seattle and other areas in the near future.

Genocide remembered; future charted

Guibord said that the dialogue groups have also commemorated, for the past several years, the 1915 Armenian genocide, and "other genocides that have taken place and continue to take place."

"One of the great heartaches is that there are many people who don't believe the Armenian genocide ever happened and it is not possible to heal without it. And of course, the huge concern for any body of people that has suffered through any violence is that it's going to happen again," she said.

Ecumenical dialogue is a way to acknowledge it and to come to a deeper understanding. "The more we understand one another, the more relational we are with people of other faiths in our daily lives, the less likely we will harm in any way theologically, psychologically or spiritually, our brothers and sisters," Guibord said.

Derderian said the ecumenical dialogues offer hope, "because genocide against Armenians, if it is not recognized, is genocide against humanity.

"As Christian leaders, we have the moral obligation to be in good dialogue, genuine dialogue, because we believe in the same God.

"The Word of God should not and cannot be a reason for separation," he added. "At times in the history of Christianity, the interpretation has separated nations and people and communities and that is, to my understanding, against the spirit of Christianity. There is more reason for dialogue, if there are differences."