Armenian Church

views updated May 23 2018


ARMENIAN CHURCH . According to legend, the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew were the original evangelizers of Armenia. Reliable historical data indicate that there were bishops in western Armenia during the third century, principally in Ashtishat in the province of Taron. Eusebius of Caesarea mentions "brethren in Armenia of whom Merozanes was the bishop"; Dionysius of Alexandria wrote a letter on repentance to Merozanes in 251. There are scattered stories of Armenian martyrs during the third century, but records are meager and mostly questionable.

Historical Development of the Church in Armenia

The cultural contacts of the Armenians with the Greeks in the west and the Syrians in the south and the missionary outreach of important Christian centers in Caesarea and Edessa facilitated the introduction of the Christian religion into Armenia, which was a kingdom under Roman protectorate. Following the Edict of Toleration issued in 313 by Emperor Constantine at Milan, the king of Armenia, Tiridates III (298330), and his courtiers were converted and baptized by Gregory the Illuminator, the apostle of Armenia. Armenia became in 314 the first nation with Christianity as its established state religion.

Following the king's baptism, Gregory traveled to Caesarea (Cappadocia) in the fall of 314 and was consecrated by Metropolitan Leontius as the first catholicos, or chief bishop, of the Armenian church. Gregory's consecration marked the farthest extension of the Christian church in northeast Asia Minor from its base in Caesarea, where Gregory himself had been raised and educated. The formal conversion of Armenia reinforced its political and cultural ties with the Roman world.

On his return, Gregory was installed as catholicos by Bishop Peter of Sebaste; he then proceeded to the royal city of Vagarshapat, which became the catholicate of the Armenian church. The city was renamed Echmiadzin ("descent of the Only-begotten") in celebration of the vision in which Gregory saw Christ strike the ground three times with a golden hammer and show the form of the cathedral to be built.

Gregory's son succeeded him in 325 as catholicos and was one of the bishops who participated in the Council of Nicaea convened in the same year. A number of Gregory's descendants followed him as catholicos, in accordance with a hereditary system reflecting the feudal society of the time. Only in the fifth century did the office become elective.

The first Armenian church council was called in Ash-tishat in about 354 by Catholicos Nersēs I. Following the example of his contemporaries, Basil of Caesarea and Eustathius of Sebaste, Nersēs had the council enact rules for moral discipline and for the establishment of monastic and charitable institutions in the country.

The Armenian church was originally formed as an eastern province connected with the see of Caesarea. Later, as the authority of Caesarea waned and Greater Armenia was divided between Rome and Persia in 387, the Armenian church pursued an independent course. Catholicos Sahak I acceded to the catholicate in 389 without reference to the see of Caesarea. At the Council of Shahapivan in 444, Sahak's successor, Hovsep I, was confirmed as catholicos, thereby affirming the autonomy of the Armenian church.

After the partition of Armenia, the church posed an enduring political problem for the Persians. For about three hundred years the latter never ceased to exert pressure on the Armenians to break their religious and cultural ties with the Greeks. The new religion from the west, now flourishing in Armenia, so alarmed Yazkert II of Persia (r.438457) that he issued an edict bidding the Armenians to renounce their faith and embrace Mazdaism. After an unsuccessful revolt, in which the Armenian hero Vartan Mamikonian was killed in battle, the resistance continued and a second revolt in 481 forced King Firuz to declare full recognition of freedom of religion for Armenians.

The fifth century is considered the golden age in the history of the Armenian people and its church. The leadership of Catholicos Sahak I and the missionary and literary labors of Mesrop Mashtotsʿ gave rise to the Christian culture of the Armenian people. Complete translation was made of the Scriptures as well as of the more important liturgical and theological writings of the eminent church fathers.

The catholicate moved many times with the shifts of the center of political power in the nation. In 484, it moved to Duin, where it remained until 901. An even more significant move was made with the establishment in 1116 of the catholicate in Cilicia, where the Armenian princes had settled and founded principalities and later a kingdom (10801375). The see was returned to its original site at Echmiadzin in 1441.

There have been a number of jurisdictional schisms in the history of the church. The longest of these began in 1113 when a schismatic catholicos, David, was installed on the island of Alʾthamar in the province of Van. He opposed the lawful incumbent, Gregory, whose seat was then located outside Armenian territory. David tried and failed to exercise jurisdiction over Greater Armenia in the northeast. The last incumbent of Alʾthamar died in 1895 without a successor.

A more serious and still unresolved division came about in 1441 when the see, then in Cilicia, was returned to Echmiadzin by the decision of a church assembly. Despite the fact that the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia had fallen to the Mamluks of Egypt in 1375, and there was no reason to maintain the center of the church away from its original location, the incumbent of the see (in the city of Sis) refused to comply. The Cilician catholicate has retained its independent existence. Following World War I, its seat was moved from Sis to Antelias, Lebanon.

As early as the twelfth century, Armenians came into contact with the Latin church through close cultural and political ties with the Crusaders. Aided by the missionary activities of Franciscans and Dominicans, a Latinizing movement gained ground among liberal elements in the church. Although this movementof varying strengthlasted for about four hundred years, it did not result in any significant secession to Rome. Only in 1831, under a new Ottoman policy toward Christian minorities, was an Armenian Rite Catholic Church within the Roman communion legally recognized. The catholicate of Armenian Catholics is located in Beirut, Lebanon.

In 1830, American Protestants began their missionary activity in Asia Minor. In 1846, the Ottoman government legally recognized the separate status of an Armenian Protestant community. Continued affiliation of Armenian evangelicals with American missionary organizations has been another source of Western influence. Schools and colleges have been established and the Bible translated into the modern vernacular.

It should be noted that the early divisions within the church did not arise on dogmatic grounds. They were caused primarily by the resistance of secular rulers to the presence within their territories of a church community dependent on an authority beyond their frontiers and influence. Complete secessions on dogmatic grounds have occurred only in the nineteenth century with the formation of Armenian Roman Catholic and Protestant Evangelical church communities.

The nineteenth century brought important changes to the juridical status of the church after Russia took eastern Armenia from the Persians in 1828. The tsar issued a statute that was accepted by the ruling catholicos even though it reduced his power by creating a standing synod of bishops tightly controlled by the government.

In 1863 in western Armenia the church received a constitution for the management of its own affairs as part of the Ottoman civil code. The constitution provided for a national assembly with the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople as its president. The assembly had two administrative councils, religious and civil. This development was in keeping with the long-standing Ottoman policy of giving leaders of Christian minorities jurisdiction over their own internal affairs, inasmuch as Christians could not be made subject to the Qur'anic law. This system ended after World War I.

Modern Developments

The catholicos of all Armenians, residing at Echmiadzin in Armenia, remains the supreme head of the Armenian church. Outside Armenia, each established church community, whether under Echmiadzin or another jurisdiction, has its own form of regulations or bylaws, adapted to local political or cultural conditions. By and large, these regulations are formed on the principle of conciliarity; lay participation at all levels of administration is common.

The ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the catholicos in Echmiadzin extends over twenty dioceses: Armenia South, Armenia North, Tbilisi, Baku, Moscow, Bucharest, Sofia, Baghdad, Calcutta, Sydney, Cairo, Vienna, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and Jerusalem. The catholicos of the Armenians of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon, presides over four dioceses: Beirut, Aleppo, Damascus, and Nicosia. In the 1950s, for political reasons, the dioceses of Tehran, Athens, and the two newly created dioceses of New York and Los Angeles, paralleling those under Echmiadzin, came under the jurisdiction of the catholicos of Cilicia. The legitimacy of these changes of jurisdiction is a matter of continuing dispute.

There are Armenian patriarchates established in Jerusalem and Istanbul. Each of these comprises only one local diocese. The patriarch of Jerusalem is one of the three custodians of Christian holy places in and around Jerusalem. The patriarch of Istanbul, once the administrator of the entire Armenian "nation" in the Ottoman Empire, now controls only the diocese of Istanbul itself and a number of small struggling parishes in the interior of Turkey. At present the patriarchate does not have a written constitution and is governed by the patriarch on the basis of established customs and practices.


The prototype of the Divine Liturgy, or Eucharist, has been the liturgy of Basil of Caesarea, which was translated into Armenian in the fifth century. Later this liturgy gave way to the Byzantine liturgy of Chrysostom. During the period of the Crusades, however, Latin influence brought about some minor changes in the ceremonials and vestments. Since the tenth century, the form of the liturgy has remained constant with the exception of the addition of the Last Gospel (Jn. 1:115) at the end of the Eucharist.

The use of unleavened bread and unmixed red wine was already established during the seventh century. Communion is given in both elements, with the communicant standing. The sacrament is reserved but not ceremonially venerated. At the conclusion of the Eucharist, fragments of thin unleavened bread, simply blessed, are distributed to those not receiving Communion.

Seven offices, including Nocturn, Matins, Prime, Midday office, Vespers, Peace, and Compline, comprise the liturgy of the canonical hours. There are other occasional offices such as the Penitential, the Memorial, the Processional, and the Adoration of the Church. In the fourteenth century, the principal sacraments were counted as seven following Latin custom: baptism, chrismation, Eucharist, penance, ordination, marriage, and anointing. The church does not practice extreme unction as it is known in the Latin rite. Baptism, ordinarily of infants, is administered by immersion; chrismation (confirmation) and then Communion follow immediately after baptism. This sacrament of initiation conforms to the practice of the other Eastern churches.

Fasting calls for abstention from all animal foods. Apart from the forty days of Lent, there are ten weekly fasts of five days each. Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days, except during the fifty days following Easter.

About 360 saints (including groups of saints under collective names) are recognized in the directory of feasts. Of these, 100 are biblical, 100 are Armenian, and 160 are non-Armenian belonging to the first five centuries of the Christian era. Gregory of Datev (early fifteenth century) is the last of the saints formally recognized by the church. The Holy Virgin has a unique position as foremost among the saints and is venerated extensively in liturgical worship.

The directory of feasts is arranged on the septenary principle. Each liturgical observance falls on a day in the week, numbered in the series of weeks following the Sunday nearest to the anchor date of one of the four periods of the annual liturgical cycle. Easter moves on a range of thirty-five days; the first Sunday of Advent and the feasts of the Assumption and Exaltation move on a range of seven days. Seven feasts commemorating episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary are observed on fixed dates. Dominical feasts fall on Sundays.


There are three major orders of the clergy, according to the tradition of all ancient churches: deacon, priest, and bishop. "Archbishop" is an honorary title conferred by the catholicos. Parish priests are ordinarily chosen from among married men; marriage after ordination is not allowed, although several exceptions have been made since the 1940s. Bishops are chosen from among the celibate clergy. Widowed priests may be promoted to the episcopate. Clergy are trained in seminaries at Echmiadzin, Jerusalem, and Antelias.


Of the seven ecumenical councils, the Armenian church, in company with the Coptic and the Syrian Orthodox churches, acknowledges the first three: Nicaea (325) against Arianism; Constantinople (381) against Apollinarianism; and Ephesus (431) against Nestorianism. It does not accept the fourth, Chalcedon, and has made no pronouncements about the remaining three. It should be noted, however, that the church condemns Eutychianism, does not agree with the doctrine of two wills in the one person of Christ, and holds to the veneration of icons. The Armenian church reveres and follows the teachings of all the leading church fathers of the first five centuries of the common era, with the exception of Pope Leo I.

The Council of Chalcedon (451) caused an intense and lasting controversy in Eastern Christendom about the relation of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ. Of the two parties for or against Chalcedon in the Armenian church, the latter prevailed at a council in 607. Nevertheless, ambivalence over the problem of the natures of Christ continued in the church down to the fourteenth century. Since then the church has held the doctrine that "one is the nature of the Word of God incarnate." The dispute on this matter of dogma has reflected the contest between those who sought political advantage from the West and those who stood for national independence. From Constantine to the last emperor of Byzantium, unity of faith was considered concomitant to the unity of the empire. Consequently, for non-Greek churches of the East that unity meant submission to Byzantium, where the emperor was the effective head of the church and the dogmatic decrees of the general councils promulgated by the emperors were enforceable by law on pain of exile.

During the second half of the twelfth century, the great catholicos Nersēs of Cla, "the Graceful," maintained that there was no contradiction between the Chalcedonian teaching of "two natures" and the teaching of the "one nature." Shortly thereafter, a synod convened by Catholicos Gregory IV and attended by thirty-three bishops stated in a declaration to the emperor and patriarch of Constantinople: "We confess, in agreement with you, the theory of the dual nature of the ineffable oneness of Christ." Significantly, the synod did not refer to the Council of Chalcedon itself. Later synods in the fourteenth century affirmed formal reunion with Rome but were ineffectual because there was no representation from the area of Greater Armenia in the northeast and especially because the faithful were not in sympathy with such a move.


The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is recited in the liturgy every Sunday. There is also a somewhat longer creed, introduced during the fourteenth century and used after confession of sins by a penitent. It refers to the Cyrilian formula mentioned above: "One is the nature of the incarnate Word of God." A short creed is recited at the beginning of the sacrament of baptism.

Canon law

The canons of the church, contained in the Book of Canons, are grouped in three sections. The first is the codex formed by John of Odzun in 725. It brings together various legislations"apostolic," postapostolic, and conciliaras well as decretals of Greek and Armenian church fathers. The second section, from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, consists of later conciliar canons and decretals of church fathers. A less extensive third section, added in the twelfth century, deals with matters of civil law.

See Also

Armenian Religion; Gregory of Datev; Gregory the Illuminator; Mashtots˓, Mesrop; Nersēs of Cla; Nersēs the Great; Sahak Parthev.


The one outstanding and comprehensive history of the Armenian church is by Mal'achia Ormanian, Azgapatowm (History of the nation), 3 vols. (19121927; reprint, Beirut, 19591961), which uses primary sources extensively. A similar but older work is that by Michael Chamchean, Patmutʿiwn Hayots, 3 vols. (Venice, 17841786). An abridged edition has been translated into English by Johannes Audell as History of Armenia, 2 vols. (Calcutta, 1827). There are also three smaller histories of the Armenian church titled Patmutʿiwn hay ekeghetsʿ woy: those by Melchisedek Muratean (Jerusalem, 1872), Abraham Zaminean (Nor Nakhijevan, 1908), and Kevork Mesrop (Istanbul, 19131914). Other studies in Armenian church history are either topical or periodic. However, ecclesiastical material is often incorporated into secular histories. Important among these are Jacques de Morgan's Histoire du peuple arménien: Depuis les temps les plus reculés de ses annales jusqu'à nos jours (Paris, 1919), translated by Ernest F. Barry as The History of the Armenian People: From the Remotest Times to the Present Day (Boston, 1965); François Tournebize's Histoire politique et religieuse de l'Arménie (Paris, 1910); and René Grousset's Histoire de l'Arménien des origins à 1071 (Paris, 1947).

Tiran Nersoyan (1987)

Armenian Church

views updated May 18 2018

Armenian Church. One of the Oriental churches, sometimes incorrectly called ‘Armenian Orthodox’. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion, after the conversion of King Tiridates III by St Gregory ‘the Illuminator’ c.294 (hence the name ‘Armenian Gregorian Church’ which is sometimes used). A major factor in the preservation of Armenian national consciousness has been membership of the Church, and non-ethnic Armenians cannot be admitted to membership, though this does not prevent children becoming members by baptism if one parent is Armenian.

The Armenian Church was much influenced by contact with the Crusaders, of which one result was a temporary (12th–13th cents.) union of much of the Church with Rome. Another was the adoption of the mitre as the liturgical headgear of its bishops. The present Uniat church, the Armenian Catholic Church of c.100,000 members, goes back only to 1740.

Under the Ottoman Turks the Armenians suffered notorious persecutions, culminating in massacres as late as 1920 which left practically no Armenians in Turkish territory. Of the 3½ million Armenians, most live now in the ex-Soviet Republic of Armenia, where conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is exacerbated by memories of persecution. There is a large diaspora, including ½-million in the USA.

The Armenian Church has two classes of priests: the vardapets or doctors, who are unmarried, and the parish priests who, unless monks (monasticism) must be married before ordination as deacons. Bishops are usually chosen from among the vardapets. The Armenian liturgy is celebrated in the ancient Armenian language, having been translated (with the Bible) in the early 5th cent. by St Mesrob, who himself invented the Armenian alphabet. For the eucharist the Armenians use unleavened bread, and do not mix water with the wine.

They follow the Julian calendar. Following the ancient Eastern practice, the birth of Christ is not celebrated as a separate feast at Christmas, but at Epiphany. An organ or harmonium is often used to accompany the choir, in contrast to the Orthodox churches, where such instruments are forbidden.

Armenian Church

views updated May 23 2018

Armenian Church an independent Christian Church established in Armenia since c.300 and influenced by Roman and Byzantine as well as Syrian traditions. A small Armenian Catholic Church also exists (see Uniate).

About this article

Armenian Church

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic