"How does one apply the Bible and the Armenian Book of Canons to resolve a contemporary issue within the life of the Armenian Church?," asked Jason Demerjian, St. Nersess seminarian and Director of the Eastern Diocese's College Ministry Program, at a lecture delivered at the Seminary last week.
The issue is the role of women in the Armenian Church, increasingly discussed and debated not only in the diaspora, but increasingly in Armenia itself. Demerjian shared the intriguing results of an independent study project undertaken by him at St. Nersess under the direction of Professors Abraham Terian and Roberta Ervine in a lecture entitled, "The Role of Women in the Armenian Book of Canons." Demerjian's was the fourth in the Seminary's Autumn Lecture Series and the first of two lectures devoted to the role of women in the Armenian Church.
To hear Demerjian's lecture in full click here.
Demerjian began his talk with a brief survey of passages in the New Testament which restrict the activity of women within the life of the early Christian community. And yet alongside these harsh passages one finds much more expansive, active and saintly roles for women implied by other Biblical passages. This results in what Demerjian called a "sort of schizophrenic picture of women in the New Testament."
Demerjian then turned to the Armenian Church's Book of Canons. In a thick packet of materials prepared and distributed by him, the young speaker gave examples of two categories of Armenian canons--canons of the early church which were adopted by the Armenian Church and translated from the original Greek; and original canons instituted by local Armenian synods and councils.
Demerjian also read several canons which regulate the role of women deacons in the early church. These canons were fully adopted by the Armenian Church, implying that women deacons were active there as well. A lecture dedicated to the History of Women Deacons in the Armenian Church by Dr. Roberta Ervine is scheduled for Monday, November 28 at the Seminary. Demerjian next drew the audience's attention to a number of local Armenian canons which severly restrict the role of women.
"If you're looking for a positive description of women's roles in the church, you're not necessarily going to find it in canon law. If you want to know what the positive role of priests was in the Armenian Church, you wouldn't find that in canon law either," Demerjian said. "Canon law is a record of problems that occur, so if you went through the canons and asked whether there should be priests in the Armenian Church, you'd probably answer 'no' considering all the prohibitions and restrictions placed on them."
To demonstrate that the Book of Canons can not be considered the final authority in determining how women participated in the life of the church, Demerjian read from other Armenian sources that magnified the work and authority of such women as Sts. Hripsime, Nuneh and especially St. Thecla, whom the Armenians call a "co-apostle." The Armenian Church long included the ancient story of St. Thecla, a disciple of St. Paul, as one of the books of the Bible.
The lecture was followed by a spirited discussion among members of the audience, including the seminary faculty and seminarians. Time and again it became clear that the canons are to be used with the greatest caution. Often we expect more from our canons than they can provide.
"What questions can one ask of a book of law that deals with problems as they arise? How much can the canons tell us about what was actually going on in day-to-day life?," Demerjian asked rhetorically. "If someone 1000 years from now were to otain a copy of the 2005 Criminal Code of the City of New York, they wouldn't find a very accurate picture of the nature of relationships between men and women in our times."
Another caution emerged from the post-lecture conversation: "Among all the ancient Christian churches, only the Catholic Church has--or has ever had--a functioning, integrated Code of Canon Law," cautioned Fr. Daniel Findikyan. "Neither the Armenian, Russian, Coptic, Greek, or any other ancient eastern church has ever looked upon its church canons as the definitive source of church order and authority," he said.
Added Professor Ervine, "Only for rare interludes did the Armenians have the luxury of a strong, centralized government within which such a system of canons could function."
As always, an enjoyable reception followed the lecture.
The next lecture in the Seminary's Fall Lecture Series will be Professor Ervine's November 28 presentation on the History of Women Deacons in the Armenian Church.