By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
General Theological Seminary celebrated the Episcopal Church’s century-long friendship with the Armenian Apostolic Church when it welcomed the 97th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem to its Chelsea campus and granted him an honorary degree.
For the honored guest, Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, the elaborate ceremony in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd marked a homecoming of sorts. A native of Syria, he had attended General as a student in the early 1980s. The February 6 event reunited him with one of his professors, the Rev. Canon J. Robert Wright.
“He had a very broad sense of ecumenism,” Wright said in an interview with TLC. “He is an example of the longstanding friendship between the Armenian churches and the Anglican Communion.”
The event, attended by 200 people, recognized some of the extraordinary duties now entrusted to this alumnus of the seminary. Together with Greek Orthodox and Franciscan leaders in Jerusalem, Archbishop Manougian is guardian of the holiest sites for Christians, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As an archbishop, he oversees Armenian Christian life in all of Israel and Jordan.
Yet the event at General was about more than cheering a son of General who has made good. It also provided a venue for recalling how the Episcopal Church befriended the Armenians in hard times, a fact of history that Armenians gladly recall.
When Armenians fled genocide at the hands of Turks in the early 20th century, thousands came to America with scant resources, according to Madiros Chevian, dean of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in New Rochelle, New York.
Unable to afford their own church buildings, Armenians in those days welcomed help from Episcopalians, who invited them to services and in some cases provided space for Armenians to celebrate their own rites, Dean Chevian said. For priestly training and formation, the Armenian Apostolic Church also sent students to study at General and other Episcopal seminaries before it established St. Nersess in 1961.
“The Episcopal churches opened their doors to these newcomers,” Chevian told TLC. “Our people remember the hospitality of the Episcopal Church 100 years ago, when things were difficult for us.”
The ceremony at General showed two churches that do not share full communion coming together in pageantry and worship. It began with the Armenian Service of Adoration Upon Entering a Church, a rite used in Armenian congregations whenever the Patriarch visits. Then came the Book of Common Prayer’s Evensong, followed by the bestowal of the honorary doctorate.
Two dozen Armenians who serve their church as deacons, priests, and bishops participated in the service.
The event also marked the launch of a three-week exhibit of icons that were formerly part of Wright’s collection. The icons represent another area of shared affinity for Episcopalians and Armenians, Wright said, since both traditions appreciate that tradition.
Chevian declined to comment on current prospects for ecumenical dialogue between the two churches, adding that “it’s a very complicated area, and it would take a long discussion to be able to approach that.”
But seminarians hope to build on burgeoning relationships that took root in preparation for Archbishop Manougian’s visit. Students from General and St. Nersess are discussing possibilities, Chevian said, for reuniting in the future for worship, a meal, or both.
TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an independent journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.
Image: Archbishop Nourhan Manougian with Kurt H. Dunkle, dean and president of General Theological Seminary. • General Seminary photo