It was 20 years ago today: Helix, Church & State
Armenians were the first nation to accept Christianity. It is a historical fact which may not always translate into expressions by the people.
In 301, St. Gregory the Illuminator converted the King of Armenia to Christianity and who then proclaimed Christianity as the official state religion of the Armenian Nation. Armenians are aware of the “First place” acknowledgement of history and will accept the recognition. “We were the first Christian nation!” is often expressed as a badge of honor. As to how that Christian identity is expressed is up for grabs.
Armenian Christianity is cumbersome because it is tied to religion, culture, and national identity. For instance, the Armenian alphabet was invented for the sole purpose of translating the Holy Scriptures into Armenian. So, the logic follows that because of the Church’s need, the Nation received an alphabet that developed its literature and culture. Hence, the development of Armenian consciousness was directly connected to the Church.
On the practical side, there are many examples of this interconnected relationship between Church and State. When Armenian land was occupied, the Church functioned as the representative of the people. The heads of the Church have been revered as a head of state in the absence of a government. In many ways, the intertwining of Church and State for the Armenian people twists and turns through history and in defining identity in more a complicated manner than the DNA double helix molecule. Unraveling it leaves you with the components that you may try to retwist to your liking, but it never yields the complete gene sequence.
The United States constitution, in its Bill of Rights, specifically forbids an event such as the conversion of Armenia, in America. In fact, it clearly states that there cannot be a state religion or forbidding one religion officially over others.
That first year of the Youth Ministry Center it was difficult to explain this nuance to parents and grandparents of the students. Conflict between Church and State is a bigger problem than might be imagined within the Armenian community, especially across generational and educational lines. When we opened the Youth Ministries Center, parents saw the importance of having their kids vaccinated against the materialism that was so prevalent around us. But they saw the priest, namely me, as the “Official Christian” in that it was his (my) responsibility to buck the system.
I remember a group of parents questioned me about prayer in school, and they were shocked when I told them that I was against it. What? Why would a priest be against prayer? I had to explain that if I, an Armenian priest, pray, then tomorrow the Rabbi will be invited, the next day the Imam would offer a prayer and everyone else who has a religious title and following. Sure there are many things we can agree on, but I’m not that confident that I could agree on all across the board.
The Youth Ministries Center was a place where a prayer could be offered. Many of the kids would come after school and on Sundays for prayers. I was pleased that they were coming not because of coercion but of their own free will. It was the beginning of changing the mindset.
Let’s continue tomorrow where we left off today as we continue with more untold stories and miracles from 20 years ago today. I invite you to join us. If you missed earlier episodes, you can hear them on your favorite podcatcher or at Epostle.net under the “Armodoxy for Today” tab. Remember to leave a comment and/or write us at email@example.com.
Cover: Surreal rendering of Armenian Church wrapped in a double helix molecule. 2023 Fr. Vazken