Women in the Armenian Church: The First Acolyte

On the Ordination of the First Woman Acolyte

The following article was submitted to “Side by Side” a publication (circa 1980’s, now defunct) addressing isses of women in the Armenian Church. Article c. 1988 Fr. Vazken Movsesian


On the Ordination of a Woman Acolyte

A few years ago, during a discussion session at an ACYO Religious Retreat a question was asked concerning the role of women in the Armenian Church. Little did I suspect at the time that a wonderful growing experience would unfold for our congregation at the St. Andrew Armenian Church in Cupertino, California.In response to the question, scriptural and canonical references to women in the Church were cited and the Armenian deaconesses in Turkey, Iran and Georgia were remembered. It was at that moment that a young college student named Seta Simonian asked if she could join the deacon’s training program at our parish. I welcomed her.

She trained for eight months with other candidates, all men. After completing the regular course of study, in December 1984 His Eminence Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian, Primate of the Armenian Church Western Diocese found her to be worthy and ordained her as an acolyte of the Church. To our knowledge, Seta became the first woman in America to receive the 4 minor orders of the Armenian Church. Following her ordination Seta executed her duties along with male counterparts at the Holy Altar.

As other young Armenian women, Seta had sang in the choir and served in the ACYO. However, she wanted to express her love for Christ and His Holy Church in a different manner.

From the very beginning of her training Seta understood that her experience would be different from her male classmates. As her ordination neared we were apprehensive. Would the people accept a woman at the altar? If so, how? Especially considering the complexion of our particular parish (mostly first generation Armenians, who are often thought to be more “traditional”), what would their reaction be?

When we speak of women in the Armenian Church or any idea which is uncommon for our Church we make two fundamental mistakes in our thinking. First, even though we know better, we limit our Church traditions to our immediate circumstances. That is to say, if something or some expression does not exist in our church today, such as women serving as deacons, we then assume that it is not traditional. Unfortunately we continue to reason that the admission of these ideas into our church is going against tradition. However, upon studying scripture, Holy Traditions and Church history, it becomes evident that women have always been active participants in the worship life of the Church. Therefore, a church with women serving as acolytes and/or deacons today, must in fact be considered “traditional.”

The second mistake we make is we do not give enough credit to our Armenian faithful. Our true communicants are open to instruction. This was the case in our parish after the traditions were explained and supported through articles and sermons.
Seta was accepted from the first day of her ordination. The people applauded and encouraged this young servant of God in her Christian journey. Some even recalled deaconesses they had seen oversees. Some relayed lost dreams they had of serving the Church. In every case the comments were supportive. Along with the compliments, Seta would also receive constructive crticism and suggestions as did her male counterparts. It told us that the congregation accepted her in her new role.

Seta’s ordination was a special event not only in her life but in the life of our entire community as well. We thank our Primate Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian for giving our community this opportunity to grow. It is a step toward one day realizing a woman deacon. It is the Church who benefits, which means we all do.

~Fr. Vazken Movsesian

Video of Seta serving at the St. Andrew altar 1991

Seta in her own words – at the AIWW conference 1996

I appreciate the opportunity to tell you about my experience of becoming an ordained acolyte of the Armenian Church.  It’s a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart.

I first became active at St. Andrew Armenian Church in Cupertino, CA when I moved half and hour away from home and attended Santa Clara University.  The church was only 10 or 15 minutes away from school, so I attended weekly and became active in the choir, in the ACYO, and in other church related activities.  It was a small, warm and cozy community with lots of people in my own age bracket.  

As time went on, every Sunday when I sang in the choir, I looked up at the altar and I couldn’t help but notice how many of my male peers were serving at the altar.  I was envious and felt that, I too, had the ability and the calling to serve.  After all, I spoke and read Armenian (unlike many of them) and I was even taking religion classes at my Jesuit University.  They were friends, and at church these young men participated in the same bible studies that I did, went to the same retreats that I attended, volunteered in projects as I did, and some were even members of the ACYO the year that I chaired it.  Yet I, self-imposedly, felt confined to singing in the choir because of my gender.

My big break had it’s beginning at a workshop at one of our annual religious retreats led by our own Fr. Vazken Movsesian and Yettem, CA priest, Fr. Vartan Kasparian.  One of the participants of the workshop asked why it was that women couldn’t serve at the altar in the Armenian Church.  Both priests looked at each other and agreed that there was no “official” reason why women couldn’t participate in the divine liturgy at the altar.  Fr. Vazken even went one step further and said that he would offer deacon’s training to anyone who was interested.  I couldn’t believe my ears.  After the workshop was over I approached Fr. Vazken and asked him if he was serious about the offer that he had extended.  He said of course he was. So I told him that I was interested in being trained.

And with that the work began.  I started attending the weekly deacon’s trainings that Fr. Vazken held.  I was happy to see that I was welcomed without resentment to the group of 5 or 6 young men already engaged in the task of being trained.  Since they already served at the altar on a regular basis, they were way ahead of me, and they were very helpful in getting me up to speed.  Fr. Vazken’s goal was to have officially ordained servers at the altar, and since none of us were ordained, this was the goal we were all working towards.

Over the course of about a year, as we trained, Fr. Vazken slowly educated the congregation and the community with articles and talks about women’s role in the church. Of course, during this time, my fellow classmates continued to serve at the altar while I waited in the choir.

Finally it all came to fruition on December 9, 1984.  We all received the sacrament of ordination from the Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, primate of the Western Diocese.  There were seven of us in all.  It was the day we were all waiting for.  My presence and participation in the ordination was very matter of fact.  There were no bells and whistles being blown by wither the clergy or the congregation over a woman being ordained.  It was as if it was a common everyday occurrence.  The real test came the following Sunday when I could finally be on the altar.  It was a wonderfully spiritual and fulfilling experience.  I really appreciated the opportunity to be up there and serve.  In general the congregation was very supportive with positive comments and encouragement.  Of course there are always some people who are uncomfortable with change, and that’s to be expected, but eventually, as the novelty wore off, even those people came around.  I never felt like a freak because I was supported by Fr. Vazken, my friends and family.  I felt entitled to being there.  Which is a good feeling to have in one’s church!

I continued to serve on Sundays as well as assist at weddings, funerals and baptisms, until the summer of 1986 when I graduated from SCU and moved to the Boston area. Once in Boston, I of course, I immediately wanted to continue my calling to serve  I felt at home in the Armenian Church and thought it would be a haven in a new and strange city.  I knew that I would be a novelty to the Eastern Diocese.  After all I hadn’t heard of any other female acolyte anywhere in the country.  I had hoped that I would serve as an encouragement for other interested women on the east coast to come forward.  But I wasn’t prepared for what was ahead.  Apparently the Archbishop of the Eastern Diocese did not share the views of the Archbishop of the Western Diocese, of the same church, ordained by the same Catholicos.  I never dreamed that my ordination wouldn’t be recognized by churches in the east.

At the first church that I went to I was invited to sing in the choir.  I had done that since I was twelve and I felt I needed to continue the work that I had begun.  At the second church I went to the priest was welcoming and sympathetic to my situation.  He invited me to participate in the morning service litanies and allowed me to hold candles at special off-the-altar processions or ceremonies.  It was a lot less than I’d been doing at St.Andrew’s but it was a start and I was running out of churches to go to.  This time, however, I did feel the penetrating gaze of the people and the resentment of long time morning service servers.  And yet again when the divine liturgy started I was back to the choir.  I was back to square one.  I really could appreciate that the pastor’s hands were tied, and he really couldn’t operate outside of the Primate’s value system.

It was a huge congregation and I hardly knew anybody.  I felt that I couldn’t fight the battle by myself.  After all I had a new life and career to start.  Slowly I stopped even attending church because it felt empty.  Something had slipped away.  I no longer got out of it what I used to get, or give for that matter.

Now as a mother I’d like for my children to learn and participate in the rich tradition of our church, but I wrestle with the idea of exposing my daughter to a church that is patriarchal and inconsistent.  I don’t want her to feel alienated or inferior as a female.  I also don’t want my son to think that our family thinks that that is acceptable.

As my mentor Fr, Vazken would say, “the Church is not some abstract thing ‘out there,’ but it is the living (changing, growing) body of Jesus Christ.  We make up that body together and each of us has a role to play in the body.  Some are eyes, others mouths, others hands, legs and still others are called to serve.”

I have faith and hope that Armenian women (and men) with come together and empower themselves to make an impact on the leaders of their church, so that women who feel called to serve may have the benefit of the sacrament of ordination.

And maybe someday when my daughter goes to church and looks up at the altar she won’t get a pang of longing for wanting to do the seemingly impossible.  She will know that her options are open to her and that her church realizes that we all deserve the same opportunities to serve and that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

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