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Women and the Armenian Church: Breaking the Patriarchal Barriers

When we consider the pillars of our communal life, the Armenian family is an obvious choice—a source of pride through the centuries as a bonding agent for our sustainability, continuity and values. The family was the source of establishing and maintaining a profession. Multiple generations from the clan were doctors, merchants, farmers, jewelers or pharmacists. Armenians have taken pride in themselves as builders and contractors. The list of Armenian pioneers in education, technology, medicine and business is impressive. Families have been noted for their expertise and are respected by their peers. In the diaspora, it was the Armenian family that transferred the roots from the homeland to their adopted nation. Although the branches of the tree were cut by genocide, Armenians have always taken great pride in their family relationships with extended family considered a singular unit.
Indeed, the family is deeply rooted as part of our culture. But when you set the bar high, as we have from a social and professional perspective, you also carry the responsibility of fairness in equality. At the core of our families has been the enduring strength of Armenian women. The patriarchal traditions over the generations have limited the opportunities of women relative to financial independence, positions of authority and family structure. Men have traditionally adopted the leadership role and taken on more authoritative responsibilities, but without the influence of Armenian women behind-the-scenes and the family units that they have created and sustained, our way of life would have essentially faltered. Our patriarchal traditions, while static, have continued well beyond the advances of western society.
Specifically from a human rights viewpoint, it is the conscience of the oppressed that has continued to challenge humanity to better itself. Western history in the last 200 years has experienced the emergence and maturation of democracy while confronting such human stains as overt racism and hunger. Clearly progress has been hard fought and remains inadequate, but most will agree that sustained improvement in the quality of life has been attained.
One of the remaining human rights frontiers is in the domain of gender equality. At the root of this challenge is the traditional patriarchal culture prevalent through our modern times. Simply stated men have controlled the economic, social and political system in our society. In the last fifty years, significant inroads have been made as it relates to societal roles, authority, economic power, gender oppression, political power and self-esteem. Many of the longstanding walls of the repressive patriarchal culture are falling, granted not fast enough, not thorough enough and not without backlash. But the world is changing for the better.
The Armenian people are clearly a mirror of the world. We are no exception. We have witnessed changes in Armenia and in the diaspora that reflect improvement concerning gender equality. There is one institution, however, that is lagging. Society is moving so quickly that this respected anchor appears to be static. It happens to be the most important institution and therefore the opportunity is significant. This, of course, is our beloved Armenian church.
We love the Armenian church for many things: its spiritual leadership, its ability to promote our heritage and the commonality of identity it gives all Armenians. Many of our people, however, do not hold the church in high regard, relative to its connection to women. The range of views varies from ambivalence to tolerance to opposition. These are our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, yet we tolerate what is clearly institutional discrimination.
The emergence of non-traditional Armenian women’s organizations such as the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) reflects the changes in the role of women and their thinking as members of the human race and not simply of Armenians. It is exciting to see these organizations and older organizations such as the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) make the transitions to address these voids and be committed to the needs of the 21st century Armenian women. We should all take a moment to understand this phenomenon and lend our support. For all the men out there (including myself), we must view gender equality as a human rights issue. When you look at it from that perspective, it takes on an even greater importance. But where is our church? Some advances have been made to support the identity of women. The Ladies Guild organization in our church has been evolving into a woman’s ministry taking on issues of spirituality and social needs. Women are now routinely elected to lay councils. This is encouraging, but it’s not enough. It falls short of expectations and many women silently lose their identity and their presence.
Here are a few examples of current identity negatives that can and must resolved. Starting in the 1970s, there were public efforts to allow young females to serve on the altar as candleholders. At first, it was advocated by a few progressive priests, and later it was allowed by the Diocesan bishops in both the Prelacy and Diocese. Its implementation, however, has been very limited. Some parishes, such as the one I grew up in, implemented it for many years. There were other examples, but by and large it was left to the discretion of the parish priest. Many of the priests did not favor this; their sentiments were not based on church doctrine, but rather on personal views that were largely influenced by their patriarchal upbringing. The program eventually faltered with no real implementation discipline, and as a result hundreds of young women in our churches have been denied the opportunity to serve God and their church.
Identity with our church is frequently built by service. If this is sanctioned, then all should be offered the opportunity. The issue of women in the diaconate has been patronized for years. Despite a 1,000 year-old tradition of women deacons that continued in the 20th century, we have been unable to articulate a clear direction. On the one hand, the Armenian church has had the tradition of a monastic woman diaconate order yet fails to promote an established tradition that women are worthy of. The Great House of Cilicia recently ordained a woman to the diaconate in the Iran diocese. When the ordination took place, the presiding bishop stated that it was his wish that this tradition resume and that qualified women are encouraged. Obviously it is possible and has value.
One would think that a program that finds candidates within half of the population of the church would be considered important. Many of us are familiar with failed attempts in America with candidates and resolutions passed by assemblies. We have women graduating from St. Nersess seminary but are limited to roles such as Diocesan staff and youth ministry. What kind of a message does this give the women of our church who are experiencing, on a daily basis, the revolution going on in the world relative to their gender, yet when they enter our church it seems to be a distant star? It gives a message of exclusion! We have lost many women who cannot reconcile their identity with the church. Some have found identities in other Christian denominations. It is not a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of how and where to apply one’s faith in an institution. Imagine the impact to women who have spiritually heard the call to serve as deacons and have no vehicle in their own church? I recently heard some encouraging words from Bishop Daniel. He understands the issue. It is a difficult one because the patriarchal system is functioning above his pay grade. He has to navigate challenging waters. Tell him and other leaders how you feel and pray for his success.
Another matter that impacts the identity of women in our times is how the church chooses to address (or not address) important social issues. In particular, the church has been very quiet on the issue of domestic violence towards women. We all know that this is a particularly tragic issue in Armenia. As the vanguard of morality, the church should be the first to step forward and work to end this tragedy. Domestic violence does not end, because a law was passed. It needs the support of major institutions, such as the church. Specifically it must be made clear that this is unacceptable for Christian Armenians, and the church will join the fight to eliminate this disgrace. I don’t hear that. What I hear is “of course the church is concerned.” Sorry, no benefit of the doubt when lives are at stake.
This issue is not limited to Armenia. Armenian women suffer from domestic violence in the diaspora also. The church should be active in first publicly establishing a clear position and then reinforce it with programming. The church must be the “sanctuary” from human rights abuses that all the faithful, including Armenian women can count on. This leftover behavior of our patriarchal culture must be eradicated. The church has a major role to play in that hopeful victory.
Whether we refer to it as the “boys club” or by the more sophisticated term “patriarchal,” the power structure of the church must accept that it is very difficult for a male-dominated institution to explain away some of these lapses. Our leaders must understand that the Armenian women of today carry the same values and character strength of their grandmothers, but have higher expectations of their church as the general society has advanced. The church has been able to avoid this topic because we, the members of the church, have given it a pass. This will not continue as an increasing percentage of women expect leadership and relevance from their church. Will the church continue its filibuster and continue to tolerate the attrition, or will we truly embrace the opportunities? The prominent role of women in the Bible provides us with inspiration and guidance. As more women take on roles of authority and prominence in our church, we will see the results in a stronger church family.
Stepan PiligianColumnist

Armenian Weekly

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