Former readers of this page will be completely justified in saying, ‘Hey! Perry’s last blog still says Happy Christmas!’ And indeed it does, and now here we are. Happy Uniting Church 40th Anniversary. More to the point, Happy First Birthday of the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery!
The past month, however, has given plenty to reflect on. In May I spent two weeks in Armenia, in company with members of our Presbytery’s (unique) Armenian Evangelical Church, and members and assorted friends from Longueville, led by the intrepid Rev. Krikor Youmshajekian. Armenia is a place and culture I never really expected to experience, outside of the congregation in Willoughby and a Premier like Gladys.
Preparation, after working out where Armenia is, involved checking on the possibility of learning the alphabet and a few phrases (forget it); then doing a bit of historical brushing-up. Armenia has plenty of history. For many millennia BCE, when national boundaries were more a matter of language, culture and tribal influence, there were Armenians or ‘Hayk’, occupying a very great area of the Caucasus and Anatolia, from Syria to Iran and north towards Russia. They had their political dynasties, myths of cultural identity, and a geographical heartland around Lake Van and Mt Ararat, both now in Turkey. They made the world’s oldest wine and have recently found the world’s oldest leather shoe (begging the obvious question, ‘Where did they leave the other one?’) Their ancient cultural influences and nemeses included Persians, Assyrians, Alexander the Great and the Emperor Diocletian. Armenia’s proudest moment was, perhaps, the landing of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, meaning that at one level, we are ALL Armenians.
In the Christian era, Armenian national identity was forged by the national adoption of the Christian faith following the baptism of King Tiridates III by St Gregory the Illuminator in A.D. 301. The Kingdom of Armenia thus became the first Christian state, predating Theodosius’ official adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire by 79 years.
There is a fair bit more Armenian ancient history than that, but you can look it up. As in most guided tours, names, dates and events tend to envelop the traveller in a miasma of impressions which variously last, or fade, or prompt later reading and exploration. So what are some of the impressions which have lasted?
A unique alphabet and impossible language
In the modern heart of the capital, Yerevan, most signs are now in Armenian and English, but out of town, you are more likely to find Russian translations. However visits to the Alphabet Park (excited primary school children, their teachers and mothers, posing for photos with their Armenian Initial) or to the Manuscript Museum (statues of Armenian literary and philosophical giants and an astounding collection of medieval sacred and secular texts covering thousands of years) reveal the reverence of Armenians for the capacity of their shared written language to preserve and propagate their faith and culture in a largely hostile neighbourhood. Armenians, like pretty much everyone except Anglo-Australians, are remarkably polyglot; you could get around practically anywhere with Russian, most places with English, but you could easily find speakers of French, Arabic, Farsi or (less willingly) Turkish.
A history of struggle and suffering
Like many other regional ethno-cultural groups, Armenians have experienced much of their history as a struggle for independence, identity and self-determination in the face of direct and indirect opposition. From medieval to modern times, a series of cataclysmic crises have plagued Armenians. A resolutely Christian kingdom lying between Byzantine Europe and the expansionist Muslim powers of the East, Armenia suffered from the consolidation of Islamic rule under the Ottoman Empire, and ultimately endured the carefully planned and systematically executed genocide under Hamidians and ‘Young Turks’. In spite of Western sympathy, no material support was available to effect a restoration of Armenian territory after the Great War, and the remaining nation (‘Eastern’ or present-day Armenia) chose to join the new Soviet Union rather than suffer an unthinkable alliance with the Republic of Turkey. At the time, the Soviets carried a beacon of hope. No-one expected Stalin. By the end of the Soviet period, Armenia had to struggle again with borders drawn up in Moscow for political reasons. The creation of Azerbaijan placed Turkish Muslims to the East and the West of Armenia, including on territory that was, by language, culture and religion, Armenian. An ongoing conflict over the Armenian territory of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) continues to this day.
And of course, there was the Earthquake. In December 1988, during the political upheavals of ‘Perestroika’ and Armenian agitation for democracy and independence, a catastrophic earthquake devastated cities and villages of northern Armenia and left nearly 200,000 killed or injured. National infrastructure, much of it dodgy Brezhnev-era construction, was badly shattered. In many ways, post-Soviet independent Armenian modernisation is still affected by the legacy of all these events of recent history. The ruins of derelict Soviet apartments and factories are everywhere, often with a new building erected next door. Much has been achieved, much is yet to be done.
An opportunity for the Churches
Armenia’s population is more than 90% Orthodox, most belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church. We visited churches and monasteries dating from the seventh to fourteenth centuries, and the Mother Cathedral, Holy Etchmiazin, which traces its foundations back to 317, quietly pitching its 1700th anniversary against our 40th. Such places can risk becoming a theme park of a dead religion, but in fact, since independence in 1991, churches closed or destroyed by the Soviets have been built or rebuilt, monasteries are opening for tourism and in some place as religious centres, and according to our guides, the churches are full of young people and families. I confess to being a bit surprised to hear this; then again, we have heard a similar story from Russia for decades.
We visited several congregations and missions of the Armenian Evangelical Church, a product of the 19th Century missionary movements from Europe and America, and the home denomination of our Uniting Church Armenian congregation in Willoughby. A handful of underground congregations during the Soviet period is now about 40 congregations around the country. Social and community work, Bible teaching and mission activity is alive and vigorous. Support from partners in the US and Canada, France, the Middle East and Australia enables exciting projects in a cash-strapped society, like the kindergarten we visited in the village of Choratan near the Azerbaijani border, or the after-school care centres, medical clinics and public schools in other struggling towns. I’ll share something more of these in coming posts (promise).
It’s not exactly clear to me yet what might be the Uniting Church’s ongoing relationship with Armenia, except through our Armenian-speaking congregation and our Armenian ministers, Krikor and Hagop, and others with similar connections. As always, a visit to people you care about is worth many times its weight in cold cash. I valued this experience both as my own pilgrimage, a journey to of humility into millienia of the Faith; and as a chance to create stronger links with the Armenian people of the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery. Thanks to Krikor, SCCP, UME and Michele Perry for funding support, to some of whom I owe further reflection on this experience. More will follow.