Exile and Hospitality: The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Wisdom of Marginality
By Daniel Findikyan and Aaron Hollander
Bishop Daniel Findikyan was elected in 2018 as the Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America, and elevated to the rank of bishop in 2019. His consecration as a bishop makes him only the second American-born clergyman to attain that rank. Bishop Daniel has earned degrees from St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, the City University of New York, and the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He is a member of several scholarly and ecumenical associations, has authored numerous academic and popular articles, and was the general editor of the Divine Liturgy pew book used throughout the English-speaking world.
Dr. Aaron Hollander is Associate Director of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute and Associate Editor of Ecumenical Trends. He is an interpretive theologian whose current research concerns the dynamics of interreligious conflict and coexistence, the aesthetic textures and political functions of holiness, and the contemporary crisis of sectarianism.
Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: Your Grace, Bishop Daniel, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to sit down with you, in this beautiful diocesan center, for a conversation about the ecumenical history and perspectives of the Armenian Apostolic Church. But your part in that history is particularly interesting—my understanding is that you are in the second year of service as Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America, and that you are the first Armenian Church primate to have been born in the United States. Why is that significant?
Bishop Daniel Findikyan: You know, a lot of people ask me about that, and yes, to have an American-born Primate in this diocese is something quite extraordinary. In my mind it says less about me specifically than it does about the life of our diocese and about the maturity of the Armenian Church in America. I’m a product of that church in America, a church whose story of exile, immigration, and becoming rooted in new places is beginning a new and significant chapter. Our church has achieved a level of maturity in this country—that it could give birth to a young kid who’s half-Armenian, born in Texas, who didn’t start to speak Armenian until he was in his 20s, who could then go to seminary, and travel to learn from other cultures and traditions, and who could not only be qualified to be a priest, but then could be elected as the bishop of this diocese. That’s huge—my story isn’t just my own, it says a lot about our church and a lot about our community in this country. I think we’re no longer visitors, we no longer feel temporary. There’s a kind of tentativeness that we’ve always instinctively felt as a “foreign” Christian denomination in the United States, and as a diaspora Armenian community in the United States. But this Eastern Diocese of America has a 120-year history—our church hasn’t been “foreign” for generations! So yes, it’s incredibly rewarding to have been raised in this Armenian-American church and then to be elected as primate and consecrated as bishop—rewarding not only personally but I think communally as well.
AH: Well, it’s an incredible story, and I can see why this would be inspirational to the generation that follows you, not least as an emblem or a confirmation of something meaningful in the bigger picture trajectory of the church, as you were saying.
Now, for those of our readers who are less familiar with the Apostolic Armenian Church—one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world, and with over a century of life in this country, as you were saying—would you speak a bit about how this church came to put down roots in the United States?
DF: There are legends of when the first Armenians came to America—in the sixteenth century, seventeenth century—and I’m not certain about how historically accurate those stories are. But we can say with certainty that Armenians are in the US by the nineteenth century. With the restlessness in Asia Minor (what is now Turkey), already well before the Genocide in the early twentieth century, Armenians began to find their way to American shores, simply to have a life for themselves—in many cases, they came with the intention of going back. Of course, this is hardly a unique story to the Armenians! They worked hard and found some success here—they were shrewd Armenians, after all!—and some went back and others didn’t. Then, of course, there follows the Genocide: the organized detention, deportation, and massacre of roughly 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman government during and following World War I. And that’s when the massive immigration begins; many thousands of Armenians fleeing Asia Minor eventually end up in the eastern part of the United States, and spread throughout the country: settling primarily in the large cities of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and then into the Midwest, to Detroit and Chicago, and all the way to California, Fresno and Los Angeles especially.
The people coming to America in this period were already, in a sense, diaspora Armenians. Sure, many came from historical Armenia, in what is today eastern Turkey, but what counts as “historical Armenia” is hardly clear-cut and it had been subjected continually to domination and division. Armenian people were already living as minorities across Asia Minor and beyond, largely in hostile environments, so Christian faith and the institutions of the church were central to their cultural identity. That could be its own conversation—there’s a lot to say about that. But they came to this country and they organized themselves as a church very quickly. They felt the need to be together—they’re working hard, they’re working long hours, as immigrants typically did in those years, in all the big cities—they needed to hear their language, they needed to speak the language, they needed to eat together, and they also needed to pray together. But this is not to say they were insular—Armenians were developing close relationships, as individuals and as communities, with other churches and other cultures in the United States.
AH: That’s an element of this story I find fascinating, and I’d like to hear more about it: how would you characterize these relationships of the Armenian church community with other American churches over the years? Are there relationships that were particularly close, or relationships that you find particularly surprising?
DF: You know, the Episcopal church was enormously hospitable to us in those early years, and just welcomed us with open arms—not with the intent of making us Anglican, but simply providing a place for worship. The first Armenian Divine Liturgy was celebrated here in New York, actually, in an Episcopal church. The hospitality shown by the more established church to the immigrant church and to the Armenian community remains an inspiration. One of our wonderful priests, Fr. Arten Ashjian, who passed away a few years ago, a good scholar and historian, wrote a very nice book on the history of that Armenian-Anglican relationship in America, over the last hundred years or so. It’s well worth a read, and it’s much more informed about the details than I am.
I’m basically a medievalist, my field is liturgy, and liturgy finds its period of development in the early middle ages; that’s where I’m in my comfort zone. But even going back that far, my reading of history is that the Armenians have always been open to dialogue and social exchange with religious others. The Armenians have generally been a minority wherever they were, surrounded for most of our history by unfriendly neighbors, and so we were never really in any position to insist that the world conform to our flavor of Christianity. There was always a cosmopolitan spirit among the Armenians, I would say—a political strategy in part, but no less an ethical perspective of the church. We understood that there were other Christians around us, and we had no intention of going out and converting all of them to our own understanding of Christology or liturgy. We always fought strongly for what we understood to be the truth—yet we also understood that “the truth” could be experienced in various ways. We had lively exchanges already in medieval times with the Byzantine church, and with the Syriac-language churches…
AH: Of course, Armenia stands at a crossroads where these different traditions are coming together, encountering one another, debating over forms of worship and formulations of doctrine.
DF: Exactly. People were constantly coming through our territory, and the Armenians didn’t hide themselves in their monasteries, they went out to meet with these people and talk with them a little bit, and maybe fight with them a little bit, but ultimately these encounters are all taken to be an edifying intellectual and spiritual exercise. In the Christological debates and in other areas of dispute, other Orthodox churches were amazed at the incredible exchange and collaboration (though “collaboration” might not be the right word, exactly) between the Armenians and the Catholics, around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They look at that critically, you know, “How could you do that? These are Catholics, these are papists! What are you doing?” Well, the Armenians seem to have taken a different approach, and had a more balanced sort of attitude: “Let’s see what these Latins have to offer!” And if we see things that we like, if we see that they enrich our Christian life, then we may adopt those things. And if we see things we don’t understand, or don’t care for, we can leave them aside. And this approach is something one could trace back a long way, I think. This openness is part of Armenian Christian “DNA,” if we could call it that. Because we wanted to be friends with other Christians, whatever their particular formulations of the truth—we needed other people who believed in Jesus Christ as we did. And certain ideas or problems could be batted around in classrooms and monasteries. With other aspects of Christian life we just needed to hold hands and pray together and do what we could to honor one another. I don’t mean to put too much of a romantic, naïve spin on this, but in all this there is, I believe, a unique contribution of Armenian Christianity and the Armenian Church to what today we call the ecumenical movement.
AH: That’s very important and I want to come back a little later to this issue of distinctly Armenian contributions to ecumenism. Of course there’s going to be complexity in how all this is lived out in particular circumstances, but to have the default be a posture of openness and listening to what others have to offer, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing so in good faith—to have this disposition upheld in the history of a church as preferable or even just as normal is something to be proud of. It makes a difference, even when it’s being lived out imperfectly.
It sounds like you’re suggesting that this dialogical disposition has ancient roots in the Armenian Church but also gets carried forward into the diaspora experience. It’s interesting that this experience you’re describing, of coming to the United States already having had a long history of being a minority community, with a self-understanding shaped by cosmopolitan relationality and debate with other Christian communities—this isn’t an experience shared by every immigrant church community that is coming to these shores. In many cases, immigrant communities are arriving from places where they would not have been minorities, did not have that history of cosmopolitan exchange, and now find themselves in a position of having to negotiate and adapt to a disorienting diversity. But not so for the Armenian Church.
DF: Right—just think about immigrant communities coming from places like Ireland, Russia, or Mexico. And it’s not just about being a minority in the sense of numbers of people, it’s also about power. Look at the Byzantine Orthodox world, and the various branches and national traditions that emerge from it, perhaps especially Greek Orthodoxy: they have a concrete cultural memory of a time when Orthodox Christians had substantial authority in the Mediterranean world and beyond. They had an empire in their hands for a thousand years. Armenians rarely had anything close to that level of authority or security. It’s not unreasonable—whether you think it’s right or wrong, realistic or unrealistic— that the heirs of Byzantium would expect to be able to say (and I’m caricaturing a bit here), “look, Constantinople was ours, and Hagia Sophia was our cathedral, so we’ve got the Christianity with the strongest foundations—and you all should do things the way we do, you all should come to us for guidance.” We don’t have that kind of experience, and we never did.
AH: This is so important, and of course the point here is not to throw our Greek friends under the bus—
DF: Of course not!
AH: —but rather to recognize that this experience in the Greek world (and elsewhere, of course), this memory of having once enjoyed imperial authority shapes a certain kind of ecclesial ethos, it shapes political and ethical norms, it shapes an ecumenical disposition… So I’d like to think with you a little bit more about how the lack of such an imperial background, and indeed the longstanding experience of minority and refugee status, has shaped the Armenian Church through to today.
Now, to take a short detour: we’ve just celebrated the 2020 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, with an ecumenical service at the Interchurch Center and a series of events up at Graymoor and the surrounding area. The theme for this year’s Week of Prayer was taken from Acts 28, and it was selected by the churches of Malta: the “unusual kindness” shown by the people of Malta to St. Paul and to those who were shipwrecked with him on the journey to Rome where Paul was to be tried before the emperor. These shipwrecked people were known to nobody on the island, they were owed nothing, they had nothing to offer in return besides their thanks and prayers, and on the other hand you have this tight-knit community on Malta, they’re largely isolated, they have very limited resources, and yet they take in these soldiers, sailors, prisoners—not the most welcome of strangers, you might imagine!—and show to them what the author of Acts calls “unusual kindness,” a hospitality that exceeds any cultural expectation of an obligation to provide for strangers.
DF: It’s such a wonderful story.
AH: It’s a beautiful narrative, and it’s one that I think is especially resonant at this moment. We’re living through a time which is so fraught, so laden with uncertainty and fear surrounding migrant and refugee populations—both for the refugee populations that are trying to find new ways of living in politically and ecologically unstable times, but also for the established communities who are now confronted with their presence and have to make choices about how to react. The Week of Prayer theme calls into the foreground both an attention to the experience of refugee communities and a reflexivity for those established church communities that may or may not be inclined and equipped to behave like the Maltese in Acts 28.
So, I wanted to pose this to you—given the Armenian Church’s history with the extraordinary stresses of exile and refugee existence, and all that attends on that, do you see ways that the memory of living as a refugee diaspora has been maintained in the church today, has shaped its own ecclesiology, ethics, and ecumenicity?
DF: It’s complicated, because of events in the twentieth century. I want to say, based on this lovely discourse I just gave you, that Armenians are always warm towards strangers, and we welcome everyone in to our table—but that’s not necessarily the case. The disposition of openness is there, as I’ve said, but simultaneously there have been forces working against it, constraining how free and willing we have felt to live out that disposition in a hostile environment. The Genocide and seventy years of totalitarianism imposed upon our people in various places did not leave us without scars. There has been, I think, a tendency for a kind of clannishness among Armenians. I think the loss of our monasteries is especially significant; during much of the Ottoman period, thousands of monasteries were slowly taxed out of existence, basically. By the time of the Genocide there were a number of monasteries still out there, but far fewer than there were before. These were the engines of our church and civilization—for most of our history, most Armenians were within walking distance of at least one or two monasteries.
AH: Of course—they were centers of intellectual culture, material culture, textual records—
DF: Everything. Art, science, music, theology—everything was there. The monks were not hermits, they were involved, they were out in the communities, as leaders and listeners. But that world crumbled, and although we look to the Genocide as this turning point when everything was erased, as far as the life of the monasteries was concerned, the Genocide was the nail in the coffin—the decline had been ongoing for some time. With that decline, I think we lost a lot of our Christian vision. The Christian visionaries, who were the monks, were no longer there; the clergy that were left were suddenly in a position of being stretched thin, needing to spend much of their time baptizing and burying—we no longer had the luxury of large monastic communities sitting down together and praying and discussing and deliberating, or engaging in dialogue with Greeks, Catholics, Syrians, Jews, and others…
AH: The priorities have changed. And you were speaking about trauma, those “scars” left by totalitarianism and genocide. Trauma has an effect on our ethical capacities, it affects what we’re able to give of ourselves, even if we want to offer more than we’re able to. We can be shaped by our traumas in ways that diverge from what we believe to be right.
DF: That’s the reality. One would have hoped that this forced immigrant experience would have opened us to be more active in terms of hospitality to refugees, and I’m trying to promote that now, as the bishop. You know, I’m not getting resistance at all—nobody pushes back and says, “no, we don’t have time for that,” people know that it’s the right thing to do, it’s just that they haven’t really taken the concrete steps to do it. My message is, as I’ve said, we’re not the new kids on the block anymore: we are a mature church in this country. Now it’s time for us to open up our doors as they were opened to us when we were fleeing for our lives. And so we’ve begun trying to reach out and help those who need assistance—whether they need food, or company, or advice, and whoever they are, whatever their skin color, wherever they’re coming from. But right now, it’s not coming instinctively. When unchallenged by our Christian vision, conspiracy theories thrive, especially relating to refugee communities from the Middle East—“you know, those people did that to us, and those people always hated us”… And this is just destructive and contrary to everything Christian.
AH: It’s not only corrosive ethically, in terms of our relationships with strangers in need of help, it’s also corrosive, we might say, anthropologically. To have one’s perception of other people, whoever they are, bent out of shape in this way so that we don’t see them as people, we only see the ways their ancestors or co-religionists have hurt us—what is this way of seeing doing to our own souls?
This is something we’ve been thinking about at the Graymoor Institute in some depth over the last several months, and it’s come up in a few of these conversations we’ve had—the political polarization in our society, the ways that this polarization puts pressure and constraints on certain kinds of Christian witness, and the ways that it has remapped ideas about what Christianity in America is or should be. The contemporary humanitarian crisis around refugees and migrants, I think, falls within this scope—it’s deeply divisive for Christians, and I’d be interested in hearing you reflect a little on how we might reckon with that divisiveness, not only between churches but within churches as well.
DF: It’s a tough call. You know, I have Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option in my head. He paints a really frightening picture about the society we are living in as Christians, as Christian communities, and about that post- or non-Christian society’s power, its authority over us. Dreher’s prognostication is pretty dire about how the Church is going to—I don’t want to say survive—but how it’s going to function, what its vision should be in our time. He questions the very idea we have lived by as Christians, this idea that we’re going to go out and preach the gospel to all nations, and people will come to rejoice in Jesus Christ. Dreher says, well, those days are gone, barring a miracle. The power of society, not only over church institutions but even over Christian attitudes, is profound: and this society around us is increasingly chaotic, hurtful, hateful, and divisive, in Washington and everywhere else. It’s become a new norm.
AH: In many ways, this is exactly the opposite of “unusual kindness.”
DF: Yes, exactly.
AH: And on the specific issue we’re addressing, this venomous atmosphere manifests as exploiting refugees, hating refugees without knowing anything about them, treating them like an infestation rather than human beings… When we see Christians so willing to embrace those attitudes toward otherness, toward strangers—how do we reckon with that, not only as something that is happening within our own churches but also within the American landscape more broadly?
DF: All I can see is that we have to become radically Christian—we have to engage in a really radical return to the basics of the Christian message, you know, actually uphold what Jesus Christ had to say about strangers and foreigners, even enemies! Go to the scriptures, and call on a recommitment of every individual within the church to recognize the urgency of that call and mission grounded in scripture and what it shows us about human relationships.
AH: Can you imagine a way that this divisiveness around the refugee crisis, to return to that dimension of the present situation, as much as this is an ecumenical crisis, could you imagine a way that it might be an ecumenical opportunity as well?
DF: It should be! I mean, if we can go back to Christ’s own example—his openness, his reaching out to the Samaritan and these various people who were—the gospel writers were very careful to show us how he was deliberate about transcending ethnic and other boundaries. Reaching out, and showing service and love not only to people outside his cultural framework, but even to people whom he would have been expected to hate and mistrust. You know, at this point in my life as a priest, as a bishop, I find myself dwelling on this in my preaching—everything ultimately comes back to blind love, love blind to prejudice. And love made tangible and visible is service, right? Service to the other person, extending a hand, giving time—and everything else is secondary.
We have to talk about that, and not stop talking about that—how are we going to realize this tireless love in our own lives in some way? It’s got to be baby steps, perhaps, beginning one-on-one, with the person I’m talking to in this moment. And in our interactions with others, we have to find ways—when politics gets in the way—to reframe these issues along Christian lines, not the ways that politicians want to frame them or the ways that our culture expects them to be framed. Because these ways necessarily constrain us to binary thinking, to this or that—but generally that’s already a distraction, already a misrepresentation of the reality. It’s our responsibility as Christians to look at a crisis, look at a situation like the migrant and refugee crisis, and shape our understanding of what’s happening along gospel lines, not in ways trapped within political binaries that we shouldn’t be buying into in the first place! And then to analyze the problem, and diagnose it, and determine how we’re going to respond to it, and to reject at all costs the ways that these issues are prepackaged and presented by the media, by politicians, and so forth.
AH: It’s one of these wonderful ironies—wonderful in the sense of amazement-producing—that Christianity has the intellectual resources and the overall orientation to be an antidote or at least a corrective voice to the kinds of cruel, chest-thumping nationalism that we see all around us today, and yet… the churches seem so hard-pressed to provide that in practice.
DF: Because I think we’ve strayed, and we stray easily… for so many people, “Christian” has become just a synonym for “nice.” That’s all it is—to be a Christian is to be a nice person, and of course you’re free to believe whatever you want, or not believe whatever you want, but what’s most important is to be a nice person. If we’ve reduced Christianity to that, then we shouldn’t be surprised that the Christian message and vision aren’t having much of an effect.
AH: That Christianity of niceness is so generic that it’s hard to direct it with any real critical force against institutions or configurations of ideology that are much more robust, much more demanding of loyalty—like nationalism, unrestricted capitalism, etc.
DF: It’s just not going to make much of a dent—Christianity as niceness is weak and meaningless. The word “nice” doesn’t appear in the New Testament. Jesus doesn’t say be nice to one another, he says love one another, be merciful, be compassionate, be kind to one another… and disrupt the status quo with that love, with that mercy, with that compassion.
AH: And the “unusual kindness” that we see praised in Acts 28 is just that—it’s radical, it’s disruptive, it’s surprising if not shocking. Can you imagine if it weren’t? Okay, here’s an alternative version of Acts 28, in which the Maltese are niceto Paul and the other shipwrecked strangers, and don’t throw stones at them or anything, but… “isn’t it time you were on your way and took your dirty prisoners and hungry soldiers with you?”
DF: Right! Niceness has no bearing, and makes no impact, on people’s real suffering. Dreher suggests, in The Benedict Option, that three out of five adults in America claim to be lonely. Three out of five. Now, these are not people on the street (although their loneliness should grieve us deeply as well), these are also people in corporate positions, making nice paychecks, driving home to the suburbs in their luxury cars. And they’re desperately lonely. Mental health is more and more precarious in our society—it’s astonishing how many people come to me dealing with anxiety, with depression, and on and on and on, and that’s before we even consider the violence that’s out there, the mass shootings and teen suicides, to name two of the most heartbreaking patterns. People are thirsting for exactly what God gave his Son to provide, but there’s a gap in how we connect what we as Christians believe and do and are to what people are actually experiencing, the areas of their lives in which they are in desperate need of compassion and hope. I see it in my church, and without judging, I don’t think other churches are facing a radically different picture. We’ve somehow lost the ability or inclination to make these connections, or else we’ve become numb to the stunning reality of the incarnation of the Son of God.
AH: I hear increasingly from young people, students and the like, about their dread, their feeling crushed by the recognition that our political instability is likely to get worse, and that our ecological instability is likely to get worse—problems on this scale don’t come with local solutions like, say, banding together and bringing food to the hungry, or cleaning up a park or a river, or even very successful rehabilitation programs like St. Christopher’s Inn up at Graymoor. This bigger-picture drift into instability is much more difficult to process, and it is having a corrosive effect on the mental health of younger generations in particular.
DF: I know. Not that these local efforts aren’t well-meaning and productive, but they so easily fall short. Various groups in our diocese might say, well, we have to have a service project, so let’s get together and make sandwiches. Okay, all right… and then what? Well, we’re going to drop them off at this shelter and they’ll hand them out to the poor. Okay. Good! But you know, it’s not enough. Let’s go talk to the poor, to the homeless, to whom we may find it easy to offer sandwiches but so hard to offer ourselves more abundantly. We have to find a way to get back to the stunning basics of Christianity, even in our time of distraction and isolation, back to the awesome reality of what we’re dealing with here. It will be off-putting to a lot of people and their lifestyles, but I don’t know where else we can go. I don’t have a magic answer—but I have faith that the gospel can be transformative of people’s lives and of political norms, if we allow it to be.
AH: I’m tempted to say that this is a suitably apophatic note on which to conclude, but let me broaden the scope a little bit again, from these specific challenges that effervesce from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and from the very concrete challenges facing the churches in this moment, and come back to the question we were considering earlier about the Armenian Church’s contributions to Christian unity and solidarity more broadly. I know that you’ve been involved both at a scholarly level and at a ministerial level in ecumenical endeavors, and I’m wondering what you might suggest the Armenian Church is bringing, or what you would like to see it bring, to the ecumenical conversation writ large. What do you think should be more widely heard and appreciated?
DF: It’s significant—and again, I’m certainly not suggesting that the Armenian Church has all the answers. Yet it is true that the Armenian Church is a global church and has been a global church for a long time. So there is a cosmopolitanism in Armenian Christianity that is quite interesting. There is a wisdom and a worldliness—not in the secular sense, but in the sense of a true ecumenicity, an integrative openness to the whole. I have detected it in my own research and study, and there’s something here that is worth uncovering and reflecting on together with our brothers and sisters from other traditions. When I was in training, I had this kind of polyglot theological education, I went to St. Nersess, our Armenian seminary here, but I was also a student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, so I have that solid Orthodox exposure and credential, and then I went off to Rome for five years and was a student of the Jesuits, so I got a taste of their ethos and scholarship as well, for which I thank God always. But my path is hardly unique—okay, we call ourselves the Apostolic Armenian Church, we’re basically an Orthodox church, but not exactly. We’re what’s called an “Oriental” Orthodox church, with different cultural horizons and theological orientations. And of course we’re not Catholic, but we’ve always been able to learn from Roman Catholicism and able to contribute new insight as well, I hope. So we’re in this in-between space, and while it can be a little unsettling—you know, “who should I follow for insight here, who can show me the way? As an Armenian, which way do I turn?”—this marginality is also the framework for a liturgical depth and a Christian witness that may be small in scale but are unique and precious, and could be life-giving to many who don’t happen to have Armenian DNA.
AH: You were suggesting before that, because the Armenian Church was never an imperial or a papal church, because the Armenians couldn’t even dream of such power and stability, your globality and ecumenicity could be cultivated without the temptation of thinking, you know, we are the world.
DF: And of course, none of this is meant to put down the Greek or the Roman church at all, because there are enormous advantages to having an ecclesiology that can rely on institutional stability and support from the state, and extraordinary contributions to the history of Christianity that have been made possible as a result. But that’s not the only way, and it’s important that it’s not the only way. We’re a little church, we’ve always been a minority, and yet Christ was always at the center—Christ who himself became small, became marginal. We have been able to reflect and to live our Christian life in a way that is quite different from the ways of those who have had power structures protecting them and watching over them. We’ve never had that, and we’ve paid the price with untold martyrs and brutal suppression—it’s not something glamorous, not something we would wish on anyone, but it has shaped who we are and how we engage with the truth and the world. Other churches have also had these experiences, of course.
AH: Indeed, but such experiences yield a perspective and a voice that should be heard wherever they are maintained, that should be known and appreciated by those unfamiliar with them.
DF: We have an experience of living life as Christians that is different; we have walked a different path, and it’s not just a little nuance, it’s significant. For instance, my colleague Roberta Ervine at St. Nersess has done an enormous amount of work on Armenian approaches to biblical interpretation, which are quite different from the standard paradigms of exegesis (so-called “Alexandrian” and “Antiochene”). That binary is what we are exposed to in seminary and the old textbooks, but it’s not the whole picture. I’m a liturgist, and liturgy is all about diversity, the multiplicity of different traditions and ways of living out our commitments in worship, each encoded in a certain way of expression. Armenian Christianity is one such path; Syriac Christianity is another, a phenomenal tradition, or Persian Christianity in its various manifestations, the Indian traditions, Celtic Christianity, and on and on.
I become more and more convinced that if we were able to bring this diversity out in accessible forms to the population at large, to brother and sister Christians of various traditions whether around a sanctuary or around a dinner table, perhaps—there’s something very attractive in this flourishing of multiplicity that we too rarely encounter, and I think we could find not only common ground but inspiration from one another. For instance, I have a good friend, a Lutheran pastor and professor at Notre Dame—we’ve had long conversations on these matters and keep finding that we’re on the same page! He likes a lot that he hears about our tradition, and I’m very interested in the questions that Luther was dealing with, and that the Lutheran tradition has grappled with and for which it has a particular sensitivity. Armenians and Lutherans? Who would have thought? But there’s a connection there. And again, Armenians and Catholics also have a long history of talking together; I think all these conversations have to continue.
AH: Well, everything you’re saying is resonant with the Franciscan heritage that motivates the Graymoor Institute—I’m thinking here especially of St. Francis’ articulation of “minority” as an ideal for his community. This sense of divestment of Christian triumphalism, divestment of the trappings of power, not only in an imperial sense, but also in a psychological or a spiritual sense, that of self-importance and a hunger for authority over others. When all of that is stripped away, what you have left over is a new kind of space to flourish in relation with others.
Or fecunditas—another wonderful Franciscan concept, from St. Bonaventure. I think the ecumenical conversation can be, in its best moments, one of true fecunditas, a growthfulness grounded in God and contained by no one community’s or tradition’s way of doing things. Inviting differences between communities, as you’re saying, to inspire us in new and unexpected ways.
DF: Absolutely. It should be that, but how often do we see it? Whatever happened to the ecumenical movement?
AH: That’s a million-dollar question, and a long conversation in its own right. It’s becoming something new; it has to. Ecumenism’s public stature as a movement through much of the twentieth century does seem to have ended, though the whole “winter of ecumenism” narrative doesn’t quite capture the state of things. But I think there’s room for something more to emerge, in no small part related to the moment we’re seeing now, this vitriol and divisiveness over what we might think would be very basic and obvious Christian commitments like care for the poor, care for the stranger. Ecumenics is better equipped than most fields of Christian discourse or practice (and as an intellectual framework it need not be limited to Christian insights or applications) to make sense of what’s at stake in hospitality toward difference (or the lack thereof), what’s at stake in political polarization and the ways that it captivates religious imagination, the ways that identity and power collude with one another (as the ecumenical theorist Peter Lengsfeld put it), why it is so difficult and so necessary to be able to disagree productively and disagree within a horizon of solidarity, and so forth—all of these increasingly definitive problems of our time. I think an ecumenical resurgence, broader in scope and more responsive to the rapidly changing patterns of religious affiliation and understanding, is both possible and vitally necessary. We need it, at the very least, to cultivate dispositions that are being eroded and disincentivized everywhere else.
DF: And we desperately need those dispositions. We need to recapture the concept of koinonia in the fullness of its meaning—it’s so much more than who’s in and who’s out, who’s at the altar and who’s not, whose team is scoring the points today. I’ve been talking about this constantly, that what happens on Sunday morning is only the starting point. That’s the ticket for entry, but then you need to go out and build and protect true communion with one another. Communion begins in the sanctuary, but it does not end in the sanctuary. What will be possible if we do all that we do with love, if we devote ourselves to one another with love blind to prejudice and faith that the Lord will take care of the rest?
AH: That’s a powerful hope. A precious, precarious way forward.
This interview originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.