She stands in the middle of the furious crowd. She is broken into pieces, guilty. There is no sympathy for her, no remorse. She is a woman. Even worse, she is an adulterer worthy of being stoned to death. Their faces are vengeful; their hands are full of stones. The evening wind whirls with the yellow desert sand, fueling their desire to tear her down to push themselves up. It’s an ironic attempt to stone the devils inside their own souls.
And then, there he was, suddenly appearing and exclaiming, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
He was the founder of an enduring faith and its church. He was Jesus Christ. Jesus not only helped to resurrect a new era of faith but he also showed his followers how to treat women. Christians followed his steps from then on, including women in religious ministry. The road was not smooth but the record of women serving in the church is remarkable – and their remarkable legacy lives.
The same goes for the women of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Since the Armenian Apostolic Church depends on the Bible and early Christian writings as the basis for its canon, it’s important to acknowledge the extent of female involvement in these works. Women have been ordained in the Church and their involvement spans from acting as deacons to working as acolytes and nuns.
The precedents are drawn from the Bible, distinct manifestations of true virtue, crossing beyond culture and time. Filled with examples of women who were part of the ministry, the New Testament opened up new possibilities for women. The Bible was not a story of perfect and holy people. On the contrary, it was – and is – a story of broken, adulterous, and sinful individuals – men and women alike. Both sexes are present in the New Testament and add value to the stories therein.
Some women are even saints. The most meritorious one, in fact, being Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, who is mentioned during the Liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Church. There’s also Mary Magdalene, who was one of Jesus’ followers and according to Eastern Orthodoxy, considered an “equal to disciples.” She’s mentioned in early Christian writings and is also referred to as “the apostle to the apostles” for proclaiming the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the others. In the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, Mary Magdalene is even exalted to sainthood.
Furthermore, what’s astonishing is that Jesus chose to appear to women after his resurrection when in Israeli culture women’s testimony was not a valid one. This proved that he gave high value to them as human beings. In the Bible, women were not outsiders to Jesus’ mission; they followed Jesus in the Gospels and carried an important role during his ministry on Earth. After all, it was the women who were around when Jesus was on the cross; nearly all of his disciples had fled. There are countless precedents of women being in the ministry side-by-side with Jesus, his Apostles, and other male figures.
Women were an inseparable element of the Armenian Church. Marthas and Marys not only acted as nuns, but they were ordained to serve on the altar as well. The first documentation of female ordination dates back to 10th and 11th centuries AD. Sources like Mashdots’ ordination outline, which is written about in “The Armenian Church’s Women Deacons,” a published paper by Professor Roberta Ervine, offer details into these ordinations, like the fact that women were required to cover their foreheads with a black veil during the ceremony, while men were not.
Women deacons in the Church were also given many duties. Though most of these responsibilities were limited to aiding other women, they included tasks like helping priests during a woman’s baptism, reading the gospel, and carrying spiritual responsibilities in the nunneries, where the men were not allowed.
According to Mkhitar Gosh’s lawbook, also referenced in Ervine’s writing, deaconesses – or, female deacons – could be dismissed by their male counterparts, placing them in subordinate positions. Still, the Bible made it clear that women could – and did – serve in the church. In Romans 16:11, Paul exclaims, “I entrust to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon of the church.”
Smbat the Constable, a writer, translator, and noble, also wrote of the role of women in the church and added more context to this telling Bible verse. In his lawbook from 1265 AD, which Ervine also cites, Smbat records:
“With the priest’s permission, deaconesses can also be ordained and proclaim sermons to women and read the Gospel where men should not enter. They also washed children and women in the water of atonement. This office was long ago abandoned by Armenian women. Yet this is what the Apostle described [when he said], “I entrust to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church.”
Smbat the Constable also notes that the office had been abandoned but we do not know the reason. One can only speculate as to why there weren’t any deaconesses in the Church.
The History of the Province of Syunik, written by historian and bishop Stepanos Orbelian in 1299, reveals much of the same information regarding these female deacons. They helped the priest on the altar, preached to other women, and read the Gospel – but still, they weren’t allowed to do certain things, like touch the sacred Eucharist, as male deacons were allowed to do.
We have sources from the 19th century stating that women were given the same exact responsibilities as men on the altar. We have evidence that deaconesses in Tbilisi had those privileges. In Hexine Mkrtchyan’s work, “The Position and Service of Deaconesses in Armenian Apostolic Church,” we learn that deaconesses in New Julfa, Shushi and Constantinople nunneries were ordained as Senior and were functioning accordingly.
We see this rising trend in the Galfayan orphanage in 1918, a place where numerous nuns were ordained as deaconesses and were allowed to serve on the altar without any limitations. The last of these women was Hripsime Sassounian, who passed away in 2007.
Sassounian, who was ordained as a deaconess in Istanbul in 1982, visited the U.S. a few years later, in 1986, to participate in several Divine Liturgies. One of them was the Feast of the Assumption at St. Mary Armenian Church in Yettem, California and as Sassounian served on the altar, the Armenian-American community celebrated. Several years later, the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America, Western Diocese witnessed the rise of another female in the Church.
In 1983, Seta Atamian had participated in a retreat where Father Vazken Movsesian, currently the Parish Priest of St. Peter Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale, California, challenged participants – men and women both – to be ordained. One year later, in 1984, Atamian became one of the ordained acolytes – a momentous occasion in the overall course of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America; a history in the making.
But Atamian’s service was short-lived, not because she didn’t want to continue, but because she felt rejected. After moving to Boston in 1986, Atamian returned to the church she used to serve and recalled the experience to be much different. “I went back as a ‘guest’ acolyte a few times when I visited, but I felt more like a freak,” she remembers, adding that she felt the congregation looked at her differently compared to other deacons. They didn’t seem ready and, perhaps, weren’t aware of female ordination. Atamian tried to serve on the altar on the East Coast, but she says the priests wouldn’t allow her.
Meanwhile, the issue of women’s ordination was being discussed again. In 1986, an overwhelming majority of voters in the Eastern Diocesan Assembly meeting in Racine, Wisconsin passed a resolution calling for qualified women to be ordained to the diaconate. According to the “Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America,” the resolution read:
“The ordination of women to the diaconate is not a revolutionary idea. It is a practice and tradition which has fallen into disuse. We know of no part of Church Canon Law that prohibits women from providing the services associated with the diaconate, and the historical precedents speak rather eloquently that there is none. On the contrary, the evidence supports the belief that the exclusivity of males in the diaconate constituted a change from early church practice.”
Reverend Father Arnak Kasparian, who’s now a retired pastor of St. Thomas Church in Tenafly, New Jersey, writes about this issue in an opinion piece published in The Armenian Mirror-Spectator. In the article, titled “Armenian Church Needs Female Deacons,” Kasparian suggests that no progress has come out of this resolution, writing “Since the passing of this resolution, no official report has been given on its status. We need to ask the question, why?”
Indeed, the question “why?” is of key importance and many people have different answers.
“The ordination of women into Deaconate is neither forgotten, nor forbidden in the Armenian Church. Those devoted women still exist. They are in our councils, ladies societies or quietly working and praying for our Churches and communities,” said Reverend Father Krikor Zakaryan, the Parish Priest of St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church in Palm Desert, California. Still, Father Zakaryan believes the lack of female ordination into Deaconate today is a result of past wars and other historical events. This is true especially in the case of the Republic of Armenia, which remained under the rule of communism for a long period of time. The church in general was marginalized, and it deteriorated under the atheist oppression.
Regardless of this unfortunate history, Father Zakaryan is one man of the church who doesn’t deny the enormous contribution women have had in its history, saying that “… all those having the hunger and thirst to serve the Lord should follow their predecessors, preparing themselves in worthiness for ordination, for the glorification of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
The church teaching welcomes women into ordination. Yet another challenge is the way the community views women serving in the church: some members of the public prefer not to see women ordained. The norms of only men serving on the altar are being challenged, and the comfort of the known is being questioned. Those who tried to challenge these known and comfortable beliefs, where women had no place in the male-dominated environment, made people uncomfortable. The irony is that these beliefs do not reflect the truth.
Louise Kalemkerian, one of the first graduates of the Armenian St. Nerses Seminary in New York and current reverend at St. Paul’s on-the-Green Episcopal Church in Norwalk, CT, notes that women are often discouraged to become deacons in the Armenian Church. “Challenging the norms is hard to do when this is what you have been told from the earliest days,” she says. “I know a number of women who felt the call to be deacons, who were told ‘No, you can’t be’ and so they let it go. They sought ordination elsewhere, leaving the Armenian Church.”
Kalemkerian was the Director of Religious Education in the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church and, later, a pastoral assistant, but she eventually left the church, too. “Leaving the Armenian Church was the only possibility for me and it was very painful,” she recalls. “It was like divorcing your mother because the Armenian Church was my home.”
Apparently, the Armenian community and, in particular, the women within it, felt uncomfortable seeing a woman doing spiritual work – a job that was mostly ascribed to men. Though Kalemkerian wasn’t performing duties that required ordination – her work mostly entailed visiting patients in hospitals, preparing people for baptism, and offering general spiritual guidance – people in the congregation were still uncomfortable with traditional gender roles being mixed up.
Perhaps it was this awkward attitude toward women serving the church that led to its dismal numbers. “There haven’t been a whole lot of women who felt the call to ordination and the ones who had the call were afraid to say so,” Kalemkerian says, adding that if women were more encouraged to pursue their calling, there would be more ordained women in the church.
Atamian, who also faced a great deal of opposition from women in her church, supported this sentiment. “Women are not banging on doors asking to do it,” she said. This is a shame because, though there are many women who belong to the church, there aren’t many strong female role models who can lead them.
“If they had ordination, they could have leadership roles in ministering to congregants in need,” Atamian says. “They could be role models for other women who might otherwise not be interested in church. They could visit the sick and battered as a minister. They could pray for them and pray with them.”
Silva Katchiguian, president of the Armenian International Women’s Association Los Angeles affiliate (AIWA-LA), thinks that women could do so much more if given the opportunity.
“We are a patriarchal society,” Katchiguian states. “The role of women in the church has always been cooking, providing comfort and raising funds so that the church can go on, but there is a lot more that a woman can do.”
Katchiguian, who is also Executive Member of the Western Diocese Ambassadors’ of Faith and member of numerous organizations within the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, believes that women should be on the altar, lecturing and being role models for others – and that society should be accepting of this.
“There is no reason to assume that Jesus only intended males to evangelize the world,” Katchiguian states. “My opinion is that this is rooted in the fear that if a man submits to a woman, even by listening to her counsel, his own maleness will be diminished.”
Katchiguian calls to the Bible to make her case: “If the Bible is our guide, and not cultural bias, then we need to consider the many times in Scripture when women influenced men or exercised godly authority over them.”
“Both men and women are called to ‘go’ and ‘teach.’ Timidity is never portrayed as a virtue in the Scriptures, for either gender,” Katchiguian continues. “Everyone who is in Christ is in the unity of the Spirit… All have equal access to the Christ and all are one in Christ.” She quotes Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Katchiguian’s primary point, and the point of many others who advocate for female involvement in the church, is that women simply want to share the Christian values they learn and the joy they get from following their faith with others.
We may never know why women are still not ordained into diaconate today. Is it the church hierarchy that makes this decision or the women themselves? Whatever the reason, the Armenian Church can vastly benefit from including women in the ministry. In fact, Armenian communities all over the world continue to benefit from the legacy of women who have served in the Church.
We still have the Kalfayan Orphanage, which was founded by Sister Srpouhi Nshan Kalfayan; Deaconess Ustiane the Scribe who wrote a devotional collection of prayers and about the lives of Church Fathers; and, Deaconess Nazeni Geoziumian who headed a school for girls in Bursa, Turkey, continuing to teach them at her home until the school was shut down. And let’s not forget Abbess Hripsime Tahirianc from St. Stephen in Tiflis, who is still remembered on the entrance door of Etchmiadzin Cathedral, and the Sisters of New Julfa who ran schools and orphanages in the region. And lastly, the many nameless deaconesses who had the privilege of preaching and serving at the altar, just like their male counterparts.
We need to value and treasure this rich history. These archives of women working for the church makes us who we are today and it may even empower women to follow their calling once more.
The church has encouraged women and helped them follow their calling into ordination for centuries. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate these principles, reinstate this practice, and include women as a fundamental part of the church once again.
It is unfortunate that these women seek other places to follow their calling and offer their service; the Church thus ends up losing its faithful.
“If I had been ordained as a deacon, I probably would have stayed,” Kalemkerian admits. “Leaving [the Armenian Church]was one of the hardest things I have done in my life.” But Kalemkerian “didn’t see any opportunity for ordination” and because she was convinced of her calling to be ordained, she left. Today, Kalemkerian is a reverend at St. Paul’s on the Green Episcopal Church in Norwalk, CT.
Once an acolyte in the Armenian Apostolic Church, Atamian found herself bewildered as she faced the harsh reality that there was no longer a place for her in the church. She and her husband, who was also an acolyte, slowly drifted away from the church and now, the whole family is estranged from it.
Atamian became involved in a local hospital and later in the National Cancer Institute, where they help patients get involved in their own care. She finds this position fulfilling. “Perhaps my ‘training’ in the Armenian Church prepared me for this kind of advocacy work,” Atamian says. “Perhaps, in that way, I can continue to carry on a ministry that I never had a chance to fully realize.”
All these women, and the ones we know nothing about, can be instrumental for the church and for the communities it serves.
It is not a coincidence that Jesus Christ views his church as his bride: purified and spotless. This parallel reveals the true value God gives to women on this earth: as equal members in the Church and as equal members of society.