Christopher Morris Lecture: Lecture by Bishop Hovakim Manukyan on St Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Universal Church

Society of St John Chrysostom

St John Chrysostom

Christopher Morris Lecture, 24th November 2015

On the 20th Anniversary of the Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen

St Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Universal Church, the Canonised Armenian Martyrs: Communion of Saints, Ecumenism of Blood

Bishop Hovakim Manukyan

Primate of the Armenian Churches of the United Kingdom

Dear Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ: first of all I am thankful for this invitation to lecture for the first time outside our Armenian community here in Great Britain. Secondly, your patron, St John Chrysostom, is very close to us in the Armenian tradition. For a short period in his life he lived in an Armenian village. His works were translated into Armenian and thus entered the Armenian Church tradition from the fifth century, thus honoured as one of our own great teachers. We will be reflecting on St Gregory of Narek, who has become the 39th Doctor of the Catholic Church; but St John Chrysostom was already one of the Twelve Doctors of the Armenian Church. So I am delighted that the Society bearing his name has invited me to give this lecture. Thirdly, this is such an important year for the Armenian people: it is the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and I am grateful to have the opportunity to tell you of this story which is part of the history of us all.

St Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church
  1. St Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church

Let me first take you to meet St Gregory of Narek and consider the importance of our mutual Catholic-Armenian good relations, which lie behind why he has been recognised as a Doctor of the Catholic Church. Before I came to Great Britain, I was ecumenical officer in my Church and during 2013-14 my duties took me to the Vatican at least five times, leaving me with a very positive sense of the Holy Father Pope Francis and his colleagues working for Christian unity there. He has spoken about the “ecumenism of blood” and this, I hope, will help us to understand the bonds by which our martyrs for Christ link our Churches.

On 21st February 2015 Pope Francis announced his decision to make St Gregory of Narek a doctor of the Church. Later, on 12th April, on the Sunday of Divine Mercy he proclaimed this great Armenian saint a doctor of the Universal Church. A solemn proclamation took place in St Peter’s Basilica, during a liturgy celebrated to commemorate the genocide of the Armenian Martyrs under the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. Present were the head of the Armenian Church, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and the Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and the Armenian Catholic patriarch, His Beatitude Nerses Petros Tarmouni of blessed memory – together with at least 6,000 of the Armenian faithful. I would like to relate some observations about this process of proclamation, so that you have some idea of what has happened.

The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Amato, made a formal request for the proclamation, recalling the similar declaration almost a hundred years ago of another Eastern saint, St Ephrem the Syrian. Cardinal Amato said that St Gregory was to be compared not only with St Ephrem, but also to the Church Fathers like St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of the Armenian Church. He explained that St Gregory of Narek was a great theologian, meek and holy, who communicated his spiritual and ecclesial experience both by his life and his dogmatic teaching. Thus we are meeting his theology along the path of beauty. The depth of his theological ideas, the newness of his thought, and the force of his poetic words have always been appreciated both on the popular level and on the level of men of culture. St Gregory’s works have thus penetrated every aspect of the Armenians’ religious life and culture.

There are four areas of special distinction in St Gregory’s teaching identified by the Catholic Church in the case for declaring him a Doctor of the Church.

  • First, the sense of sin and of the limits of man, who is incapable of speaking to and with God without the mediation of the Incarnate Word.
  • Secondly, his dogmatic reflection on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, in which he saw the reflection of the human soul, especially in terms of the three theological virtues.
  • Third, the Defence of the supernatural efficiency of the sacraments and their role in transmission of the mediation of the Church, particularly for the importance of divine grace and the interior life, in contrast to the heretical tendencies of the Tondrakians, a ninth-tenth century Armenian sectarian movement which claimed to go back to the origins of Christianity in opposing an ordained hierarchy, denying the grace of the sacraments and ideas about the world having a creator other than God.
  • Fourth, devotion to the Virgin Mary, the Panagia, she who is nothing but Holiness, the All-Holy, the holy God-bearer in the confrontation with sin in her role of mediator as a bridge between God and man.

Who was the man behind this spiritual teaching? St Gregory of Narek was born around 950, into a family of scholarly churchmen in the town of Andzevatsik, part of historical Armenia that now lies in Turkey. It appears that his mother died when he was still at a young age. His father assumed the monastic life and later on became a bishop. The son Gregory entered Narek monastery on the south-eastern shore of Lake Van. In this period, shortly before the turn of the first millennium of Christianity, Narek Monastery was a thriving centre of learning. These were relatively quiet, creative times before the Turkic and Mongol invasions that changed Armenian life for ever. Armenia was experiencing a renaissance in literature, painting, architecture, theology. In the midst of this, St Gregory was a leading figure. His major work is called the Book of Prayer, or the Book of Lamentations, written in his mature years. He called it his last testament: “Its letters are like my body, its message like my soul.” These prayers of St Gregory have been recognised as a masterpiece of Christian spiritual literature. He himself called the book an encyclopaedia of prayer for all nations. It was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer by people of all stations in all places around the world.

There is a story in the book of a leader of the well-developed school of Armenian mysticism at Narek monastery, who, at the request of his brethren, sets out to find an answer to this question: “What can one offer to God our Creator, Who already has everything and knows everything better than we could ever express it?” To this question, taught by the Prophets, the Psalmist, the Apostles and the Saints, St Gregory gives a humble answer: “The sigh of the heart.” In 95 grace-filled prayers, he draws on the beautiful potential of the classical Armenian language to translate the pure exhaustion, the pouring out completely of the broken and remorseful heart into an offering of words pleasing to God. The result is a vast edifice of the faith of the ages – unique in Christian literature for its rich images, its subtle theology, its biblical erudition, and the sincere closeness of its communication with God. The Armenian Church and Christian people have considered St Gregory of Narek its great adornment for many centuries. He is the most popular author of all Armenian literature, and his book is venerated in every Armenian family. Sometimes, we explain that it can be compared with a one of the most famous popular spiritual works in the entire Latin tradition – St Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ – such is its importance for Armenians.

For these reasons, then – his personal sanctity of life, the depth of his theology, the power of his words to bring the soul near to Christ and the wide veneration in which he is held – he was declared a Doctor of the Church.

  1. St Gregory in the history of Catholic-Armenian and other Inter-Christian relations

But he was not a Catholic. To understand how this came about, let us look for a moment at the history of the Armenian Church and relations between Armenians and the Catholic Church into the present. Armenia was the first Christian nation. Christianity was introduced to the Armenians by two apostles of Jesus Christ – St Thaddaeus and St. Bartholomew. In the second and third centuries there is evidence of the persecution of Christians in the Armenian highlands. In 301, the Armenian king converted to Christianity, thanks to the efforts of St Gregory, known as the Illuminator, who later became the first Armenian patriarch and for ever after our Church’s patron saint. According to the oldest accounts, the king, Tiridates, had imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator for professing the Christian faith for thirteen years, before his release in the hope of restoring the king to health after disastrous relations with the Roman Empire under Diocletian. Tiridates and his court were baptised and the Illuminator was encouraged to spread the Christian faith among the Armenian people. Thus Armenia was the first state to profess Christianity as its official religion. It was adopted universally by the end of the fifth century. In 405 or 406, the Armenian alphabet had been created for translating the Scriptures into the language. Thus the letters for the Bible became the means not only for missionary purposes but also for all other communication, as well as increasingly, not least under Muslim rule and the wide dispersal of the people in other lands, as the means of  maintaining Armenian identity as Christian.  We have the story of Mesrop Mashtots, the originator of the Armenian alphabet, who was a missionary. Before there were any alphabets, it is said, the words of God came like rain from heaven. But with only Greek and Syriac alphabets, it rained words in Armenia that could not be heard. Thus the alphabet was created first to translate the Scriptures from the Syriac peshitta, and secondly the Greek Septuagint. Starting from the fifth century, there was extensive translation of Patristic literature from many Greek and Syriac fathers, some of which are now only preserved in the Armenian language.

In the beginning of the fifth century, when (especially in the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire) the controversies on Christological issues were at their height, Armenians were not participants, not least as they were struggling to protect Christianity from the forces of Zoroastrian Persians. For about 450 years, from 428 to 885, Armenia lost its independence to the Byzantines, and after that to Islamic conquest. Thus part of the country came under the Byzantine Empire and part under the Arabic Caliphate. It was within this period, then, that the Armenian Church decided not to adhere to the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon of 451. The second Council of Dvin in 554 marks the point at which communion was officially broken between the Armenian and Byzantine Churches, and this has determined the course of relations ever since. One of our great spiritual leaders, the late Catholicos Karekin I, who studied here in England at Oxford, wrote a book on the Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Church, which is an excellent introduction to the dogmatic position of our Church when coming to study the debate on the Christological questions at issue between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians.

At the beginning of the seventh century, particularly in 629, the Byzantine Emperor Heraklios was able to reach an agreement with the Armenian Catholicos to unite the Church based on Monothelite theology – the belief that Christ has two natures, human and divine, but a single will. But was that will human or divine? How could the Divine Christ have no divine will, but only a human one? How could the Incarnate Word not have a human will? Because these questions were not answered satisfactorily, and because Monothelite theology still failed to explain to everyone’s agreement the great matter at issue at Chalcedon – how is it that the human and divine are united in the One Christ – the agreement with Heraklios came to be rejected by the Byzantine Church, the Western Church and the Armenian Church all alike.

Towards the beginning of the eight century, in 721 the Council of Manzikert between the Armenian and Syriac Churches conclusively rejected the theology that Christ’s human nature and will had been subsumed and altered by His divinity, resulting in a unity between the two Churches that has endured to this day, although the disunity with the Byzantine and Western churches has yet to be recovered. Nevertheless, relations have continued and, especially recently, these have developed and become closer. Of course, there are divisions between Churches and separation seems difficult to overcome. But there is very much an insistent urge in Christians towards re-uniting. Already, then, immediately after the Council of Manzikert, there were attempts at renewed dialogue with representatives of the Churches from which we were disunited. In the last centuries of the first millennium the awareness that our Church and that of Rome were separated was not strong. Our immediate neighbour for relations to be concerned with was the Byzantine Church. Rome was far away and it was not, practically speaking, possible for there to have been direct relations. So it was not until the Crusaders came to the East, beginning in the twelfth century, that we encountered Latin Christianity directly, and thus the fact of our mutual separation, through the independent Christian Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia around the north-eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, in what is now Turkey and the borders of Syria and neighbouring Lebanon. Lasting from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, its kings conducted good relations with the western kings who had arrived to rule the territories of the Holy Land reconquered from the Muslim Arabs. Accordingly, the relations between the Latin Catholic and Armenian Churches started to develop in the period from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries.

Speaking of these contacts during this time onwards, Karekin I observed that, beside the controversial nature of the relationship relating to mutual disagreement on doctrinal matters, the worth and significance of the cultural, liturgical aspect of the Armenian Church, including the patrimony of its religious literature, were never doubted. By the same token, another positive value in this relationship was that the western culture of that time became a source of enrichment for Armenians, both on the level of science and of the arts – such as forms of literature and the monastic illumination of manuscripts – as well as aspects of developing culture and social conditions of the day. Though we were separated, at the same time we cultivated our relationship and thus we have had a history together. We Armenians have received a lot through influences from the west. We can also make out the traces of interaction with Armenians that have contributed an influence from us upon the west down the centuries, through the commerce of our Armenian Christian people, the spreading of learning and culture, and of course the involvement of our Church in the modern ecumenical movement, and its path of building peace and reconciliation in society through the twentieth century in the societies we find ourselves in, often alongside Catholics. An account of these would need another lecture to do them justice; but let us say in passing that these too have left their positive mark on our old relationship.

In the twentieth century, as the Churches began to draw closer to each other, our Church was glad to respond to the Catholic Church’s engagement with the modern ecumenical movement, and for us likewise to deepen our historical relationship. This, after all, is why I am with you to deliver this lecture tonight. There have been numerous contacts between the leaders of our respective Churches, and we both found that the historical bonds between us in the twelfth century onwards became a rich source for our modern ecumenical involvement. Thus we were able to study issues at controversy between us and come to common understanding. The discussions received gathered momentum in 1996, when the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin I, visited Rome to meet with His Holiness Pope John Paul II, now St John Paul II, to make a Common Declaration. In it they said:

His Holiness John Paul II and His Holiness Karekin I have expressed their determined conviction that because of the fundamental common faith in God and in Jesus Christ, the controversies and unhappy divisions which sometimes have followed upon the divergent ways in expressing it, as a result of the present declaration, should not continue to influence the life and witness of the Church today.

This is a very strong declaration that resolving the Christological disagreements is one thing, but another is that we have to forget what has happened in the past arising from misunderstandings based on linguistic formulations and cultural questions, now that we have a new vision in front of us. We thus have to go forward in a common life with a common witness.

When St Gregory of Narek was declared to be a saint recognised as a Doctor of the Church in the Catholic Church, it is in the new perspective of this shared vision of our common life. It has taken over 800 years to get here, but now we have this sign of how strong our relationship has become: we support each other as Christians together.

  • The Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide:

This bond has been especially important to us, the Armenian Christian people, in looking back, as we have done over the last 100 years, on what happened to us in genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was recently reading Remembering the Armenian Genocide 1915, by a British Anglican priest, Canon Patrick Thomas. He recalls how, just a few decades before at the end of the nineteenth century, the British Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, said that of all the nations of the world no history has been so blameless as the history of the Armenian people. What he says is true. Throughout history the Armenian people have suffered alone. From time immemorial, the Armenians have lived on the land between the Caspian, the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. Their homeland of thousands of years is known as the Armenian Highlands. This rough, mountainous terrain shaped a hearty, independent-minded and heroic folk, with a unique culture and a resilient spirit. An object of imperial contention, Armenia has often been divided throughout its long history. Thus it was divided between Romans and Persians, Byzantines and Arabs, Mongols and Seljuks, who all came to the region as conquerors. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Western Armenia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Armenia by the Russian Empire. In both parts of their divided country, Armenians were creative and industrious, making significant contributions to economic, cultural and political life wherever they lived. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Armenians were experiencing a national revival, seeking the restoration of their autonomy on their ancestral lands and basic respect for their human dignity from their Russian and Turkish rulers. These innocent yearnings met with unprecedented brutality. Between 1893 and 1896, several hundred thousand Armenians were massacred on their ancient lands in the Ottoman Empire.

Worse was to come. During the First World War and its aftermath, Armenians were subjected to terror, violence, deportation and mass killings on an unthinkable scale, which Great Britain along with its allies condemned as a crime against humanity. More than one and a half million Armenians were killed in their own historic homeland by the Ottoman terrorists. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children perished in forced marches into the Syrian deserts. The remnants of the Armenian nation were exiled as refugees and scattered across the world. But even in these dark times, there were glimmers of hope.  People of good will, individual nations and Churches helped the Armenians. We remember the statement of Benedict XV calling for the protection of Armenians, as well as the material kindnesses of Catholic, Protestant and Anglican missionaries and clergy to our refugees, and the help we received for re-establishing our lives and organising our communities and our Church life.

We have lived with the aftermath of this genocide for a hundred years and in 2015 we commemorate its centenary. The first major event took place on the 12th April, when Pope Francis celebrated a Mass for the Armenian Christians, at which he condemned the genocide and publicly stated it was the first of the twentieth century. This was at the same liturgy, attended by the Catholicos of All Armenians, that he proclaimed St Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Universal Church. Later, on 23rd April the Armenian Church canonised the victims of the Armenian genocide, proclaiming as saints those among the one and a half million who gave their lives for their Christian faith. (Some of those Armenians who died converted to Islam in the hope of saving their lives, but in vain. Obviously, they are not included in the number of the martyred saints, although we mourn the injustice of all the innocent victims of injustice.) Another major event took place in Washington DC; and a month ago on 28th October, a solemn commemoration took place at Westminster Abbey attended by HRH the Prince of Wales, the President of the Republic of Armenia and His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians.

How should we understand the martyrdom of our people, and what is their message to us today? Before I give you my own thoughts, let me read the words of our Catholicos, speaking at the canonisation in April, and then the words of Pope Francis from back in May 2014 when they both met for the first time. First His Holiness Karekin II:

Today the holy martyrs of the Armenian Genocide are rising in God’s presence in heaven, adorned with the crowns of martyrdom; and they have become the patron saints of justice, love and peace. Through their intercession on high, God’s mercy and grace are poured out wherever justice is shaken, wherever tranquillity is disturbed, wherever security is violated, wherever human rights are trampled, wherever social wellbeing is threatened, wherever faith and identity are persecuted.

Secondly, Pope Francis:

In truth, the number of disciples who shed their blood for Christ in the tragic events of the last century is certainly greater than that of the martyrs of the first centuries, and in this martyrology, the children of the Armenian nation have a place of honour. The mystery of the Cross, Your Holiness, so precious to the memory of your people, represented in the splendid stone crosses that adorn every corner of your land, has been lived by countless of your children as a direct participation in the chalice of the Passion. Their witness, at once tragic and great, must not be forgotten.

The sufferings endured by Christians in these last decades have made a unique and invaluable contribution to the unity of Christ’s disciples. As in the ancient Church, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of new Christians, so in our time the blood of innumerable Christians has become the seed of unity. The ecumenism of suffering and the ecumenism of martyrdom: the ecumenism of blood is a powerful summons to walk the long path of reconciliation between the Churches, by courageously and decisively abandoning ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit. We feel the duty to follow this fraternal path, also out of a debt of gratitude we owe to the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters, which is salvific because it is united to the passion of Christ.

With these words of Pope Francis and Catholicos Karekin we see how St Gregory of Narek, the Armenian martyrs and our common path of life, witness and ecumenism together are linked. Although our Churches are not in full communion, still the Holy Spirit time and again unites us. So the people who figure in our history, whose spirituality our Churches both possess – from St Gregory the Illuminator to St Gregory of Narek and the martyrs of a hundred years ago – show this to us. Besides, as the Holy Father Pope Francis has reminded us, those who persecute and murder people for being Christians, do not ask first whether they are Catholics, or Protestants, or Anglicans, or Armenians. They are persecuted purely for being Christians.

So I think the witness of our martyrs is that we need to be more united, first of all in giving our life in service of our Lord side by side, in strengthening our spirituality, and through sharing our spiritual living then helping one another to be faithful to him in the sight of this world.

Christopher Morris Lecture 2015: St Gregory of Narek and the Armenian Martyrs: Questions & Answers


Question. In the wake of the pogroms and genocide, Aleppo in Syria grew as a centre for Armenian Christians. In the present crisis for that city, is there any news of how the Armenian community is bearing up in the face of persecution from ISIS?

Bishop Hovakim. The considerable increase in the Armenian population in Aleppo followed the forced marches in the 1890s. There were large diaspora communities not only in Aleppo but also Damascus, and also Iraq and Lebanon. Some managed to get to Eastern Armenia, which is now the modern state of Armenia, but many others were scattered round the world. These all came from this forced movement of population out of their historic homeland in Western Armenia through the Middle East, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. This is true of many in the community in the United Kingdom, for instance. At the moment there are two dioceses functioning in Syria looking after 20,000 people out of several hundreds of thousands of Armenians who lived in the region until relatively recently. We are raising funds to help those struggling to remain, and also those who have been displaced. There is one village on the Turkish-Syrian border, important historically, called Kessab, home to many pious Armenians, including Catholicos Karekin I, of blessed memory. A few years ago it was captured by ISIS; the Armenians were given one day to convert to Islam or flee. Also in Mosul, when ISIS attacked the city, the Armenians and other Christians were likewise given one day to flee. The situation is worsening as the military conflict escalates.

As a result of the 1890s pogroms and the forced marches from our historical homeland into the Syrian desert, we constructed our great memorial to the refugees and those who died both then and in the 1915 genocide in Dear Ez-Zor in Eastern Syria, but it was destroyed by ISIS in 2014.

Yet, along with Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Syriac Christians we do our best to stay together and support each other as we hold on, because, while Bethlehem is the birthplace of Christ, Syria is the birthplace of Christianity. It is therefore a great pity that the ancient presence of Christians is not merely a minority or in gradual decline – it is steadily being forced out. Yet there can be no Middle East without Christians; no peace in the Middle East without Christians. Christians are part of how Middle Eastern society lives, part of its identity.

Question. Was the 1915 Genocide politically motivated, or an Islamic jihad to clear out Christians? Did it continue into the 1920s?

Bishop Hovakim.  The political and religious motives were mixed. There had been a kind of revolution in the politics of the Ottoman Empire and the suspended constitution was imposed on the Sultan and brought back in 1908. In this period some Christians took part in politics and government; but this changed with the First World War. The government entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria, and it was put about that the Armenians and other Christians were supporting Russia and Britain against the Turks, in order to dismantle the Empire and get their own homeland, just as had happened in the former Ottoman territories that now formed the Christians states of Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria, all of which had been supported by the Orthodox Russian Empire. Thus developed the idea of deporting Christians in Ottoman areas bordering Russia to the Syrian deserts. Syriac Christians were affected, as well as the vast numbers of Armenians we noted earlier.

The Ottoman government was attempting to build a railway across its eastern territories, the Berlin to Baghdad railway, which would have secured its control of the Arabian peninsula, given its German Imperial ally access to the Mesopotamian oilfields and enabled it to threaten British India. The displaced Armenian Christians, it was sometimes claimed, were intended to be used as forced labour for railway construction. Instead, the railway could not be completed during the war, and the Turks killed the Armenians or left them to die. The army first targeted Armenian males of fighting age from 15 to 60, but in some areas our people were able to mount self-defence. Nevertheless, the ethnic cleansing and massacres continued from 1915 to 1923. Those who say that this is nothing to do with the modern Turkish state, but was only a policy of the overthrown Ottoman Empire, are wrong, because it continued under the Republic.

Question. With regard to the Joint Declaration on Christology agreed by the Armenian and Catholic Churches, are we therefore now able to say that we share exactly the same faith in the nature and person of Christ? If we do, what can we do next to make it so that we have communion between our Churches sooner?

Bishop Hovakim. Of course we share and profess the same faith in Jesus Christ as perfect Man and perfect God. We agree that these two natures are united in Him. There is a question of our respective Church bodies, but our faith is the same. Before the hierarchs of the Church with the theologians reach their final decision on unity and communion, in the meantime we strengthen our ties with such things as mutual visits, cooperation and praying together for justice for our brothers and sisters who have nothing and those, too, who lost all they had. Sharing the gifts of Christ with one another is an important example to us of this already closer communion. The act of making St Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church after ten centuries has united our two Churches.

Question. When did we separate and what was the main cause?

Bishop Hovakim. Separation is an artificial word. This is how modern historians impose their twentieth-century worldview on the fifth century. The structural co-relations we see and understand today were not in existence; they were not the terms in which people thought in the first few centuries of Christianity. Each of the Churches planted in Rome, or Jerusalem and so on were very different in shape and because of local culture, but it did not occur to them that these were the criteria for either unity or separation. These ideas and debates came later on. Such distinctions arose in the East because of its vigorous philosophical traditions and differing schools of thought in the fifth century. This accounts for the divergence locally between the families of Eastern Churches. This affected Rome and the West at one remove. We neither had, nor lost, a direct bond with the Church of Rome and the West in all the time leading up to the twelfth century, which forms the point of our first, substantial encounters with each other. There had been missions and embassies, and we knew we were in disagreement with each other on theology and thus not in communion. When face-to-face relations became a daily reality they were positive. Of course, at various points throughout our history we had contacts and debate with the Byzantine Churches, and particularly our close neighbours in the Georgian Church, but these encounters were to promote closer relations and not to argue over separation.

Question. It is interesting how in the Coptic Church they describe the union between the human nature and the divine nature of Christ. In the West we say the natures are united in one Person. But the way the Copts put it is to say the Christ’s natures are “united” but not “confused”. This strikes me as saying exactly the same thing in different way. That we may need an Ecumenical Council to undo what has been done all those years ago and since, because of a misunderstanding over wording, seems to me to be a great sin in the Church.

Bishop Hovakim.  Exactly. The Armenian Church is part of the communion of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The language and philosophy behind the Byzantine, Orthodox Churches comes from the Greek Church and ours from studying and understanding exactly the same faith, but in other languages with other cultural expressions – Armenians, Copts, Syrians, Indians. The Oriental Orthodox share the same Christology, which is a different tradition of theology. But it is the same faith in Jesus Christ, perfect man and perfect God, as the Byzantine Churches and – as we have seen from the joint declaration between our Catholicos and Pope John Paul II – the Catholic Church. We have had theological dialogue with the Russian Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox and the other Byzantine Churches, and we likewise came to an agreement that we have each expressed the same truth in different ways. Somehow the misunderstanding led to opposing arguments and we lost communion because at first we were not able to realise how what we were saying differently was the same faith.

But one of the reasons the Armenian Church did not support the Council of Chalcedon was not immediately because of this misunderstanding. It was because it was seen as a compromise to involve the Nestorians. The Nestorians distinguished so sharply between the divine and human natures that it looked like they were speaking of two Christs, one human and one divine. They in turn thought the Orthodox, because we stress the unity of Christ, had lost sight of the perfect humanity of Christ, and confuse the humanity and divinity of Christ. But this is not what we believed, of course. We believe firmly in the perfect humanity and perfect divinity united in the one Christ. At Chalcedon, in the first place it was the Armenian view that the standpoint of Nestorius – who would not say that Mary could be called Mother of God, as Mother of the Incarnate Word, perfect man and perfect God – was being supported, because Chalcedon emphasised the distinction between the two natures in Christ, whereas we emphasise that they are united.

Secondly, our viewpoint of the united natures of Christ was confused by others with the teaching of Eutyches, who believed that the unity of Christ was achieved by the divine nature absorbing and overwhelming the human, which is certainly not our faith. If you think about it, Nestorius thought that God the Word adopted the separate humanity of Jesus in order to be born a man as Christ in the world, and Eutyches that God the Son absorbed Jesus’ humanity to be God in Christ in the world. They sound opposite ideas, but they are quite close because they see the humanity of Jesus as an instrument for God, a means to an end. We, together with the Byzantine Churches and the Catholic Church, however believe that Christ is perfect man and perfect God. Our salvation comes about because the two are united in Him and our reconciliation is achieved because they are not confused or amalgamated but genuinely made indivisible, inseparable in the one Lord whose Body we are.

So, our present ecumenical relationship with the Catholic Church, with the Byzantine Churches, with the Anglican Church and our involvement, too, in the World Council of Churches, is not because of dealing with our separation but because of our underlying unity in the same faith all along. It is in this context that we discuss our theology and Christology – because we say the same belief in different ways it is a very rich discussion. This flows into our discussions about ecclesiology, hierarchy, mission, sacraments. For instance, we have a consensus document about Christology and ecclesiology, but we now discuss sacramental life and recognition of each other’s sacraments. This means we discuss admission to one another’s sacraments. All the discussions and agreements so far can be found on the pages of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity on the Vatican website, likewise on the websites of the other Churches.

Conclusion and thanks: Fr Mark Woodruff, Vice-Chairman. In the Decree on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council, there is a striking phrase. It represents a point of realisation in the Catholic Church’s self-understanding: that its Catholicity was not full in all its bearings, so long as disunity among Christians continues to exist in the Church. The Catholic Church was meant to manifest the Universal Church, the Church in all its completeness; but, because there is disunity between Christians, we are impeded in that task. Indeed, we prevent ourselves. Your address to us this evening, for which we so deeply thank you, makes us realise how much we as Catholics – Ukrainian Greek Catholics, Latin Roman Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, along with our Anglican and Orthodox friends here tonight – how much we need the Armenian Church. You have spoken to us of St Gregory of Narek, a Doctor of the Church whom now we all share, not just as a theologian but as a spiritual master and Father to us. Thankfully, his Book of Blessings, or Lamentations, is easily available on line, which means that Christians in the west can now become more and more familiar with his spiritual wisdom. We hope that all of his works will come to be available to us more widely in this way.

You have spoken to us, too, of the Armenian Martyrs, those who lost their lives on account of Christ. Last year, I was in Lviv and saw the beautiful Armenian church there; and this is the very month that all the Christians of Ukraine – Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian, and others – commemorate the mass starvation and murder of millions under Soviet atheism, ostensibly as a result of economic and political objectives, but also because of hatred of the Cross of Christ and of the Church that trusts in Him. So there exists a deep bond between us, arising from a recognition of history and experience in which we are united and give strength to one another.

It seems to me that, for the future of the Church in our world, we need to recognise that all of us are everywhere. Greek Catholics are now across the world, and Armenians are settled in all continents too; Latin Roman Catholics are established in every country, the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church likewise extend across the globe. This does not mean that every Church is diluted in presence or witness, for we are strengthened – corroborated – as we belong to each other closely wherever we are.

On behalf of the Society of St John Chrysostom, celebrating this 2015 the twentieth anniversary of St John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, we warmly welcome you as you take up your new ministry as Primate of the Armenian Churches in the United Kingdom, here in England shedding “light from the East”. We are most sincerely grateful to you.