The official name of the church is the One Holy Universal Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church . It is sometimes referred to as the Armenian Apostolic Church or the Gregorian Church, however the latter name is not preferred by the church, as it views the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as the founders, and St. Gregory the Illuminator as merely the first official head of the church.
Various legends tie the origin of the Armenian church to the apostles. Apostolic succession is an important concept for many churches, especially those in the east. The legend of the healing of Abgar V of Edessa by the facecloth of Jesus has been appropriated by the Armenian church by claiming that Abgar was a prince of Armenia. The more common tradition claims that Thaddeus, one of the Seventy Apostles was sent to Armenia from nearby Edessa by Abgar (uncle of King Sanatrook of Armenia) to evangelize. The details of the story vary widely, but in all stories Thaddeus converted Sandookdht the king's daughter. In some versions Sanatrook was also converted, but later apostasized. In other versions, he was never converted, but was always hostile to Christianity. In any case, Sanatrook martyred both Thaddeus and Sandookdht. Some versions have the apostle Bartholomew arriving in Armenia about the same time to also be martyred. Though these stories are considered historically questionable by modern scholars, the church in Armenia had to have begun early as persecutions against Christians in 110, 230, and 287 were recorded by outside writers Eusebius and Tertullian.
The Kingdom of Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III and members of his court, an event traditionally dated to 301 A.D. (after Mikayel Chamchian 1784). Gregory, trained and ordained in Christianity at Caesarea returned to his native land to preach about 287, the same time that Tiridates III took the throne. Tiridates owed his position to the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a noted persecutor of Christianity. In addition, he became aware that Gregory was a son of Anak, the man who assassinated his father. Consequently Tiridates imprisoned Gregory in an underground pit, called Khor Virap, for 13 years. In 301, 37 Christian virgins, fleeing Roman persecution, came to Armenia. Tiridates desired one of them, Rhipsime, to be his wife, but she turned him down. In a rage, he martyred the whole group of them. Soon afterward, according to legend, God struck him with an illness that left him crawling around like a beast. The story is reminiscent of Nebudchadnezzar in Daniel 4. Xosroviduxt, the king’s sister, had a dream in which she was told that the persecution of Christians must stop. She related this to Tiridates, who released Gregory from prison. Gregory then healed Tiridates and converted him to Christianity. Tiridates immediately declared Armenia to be a Christian nation, becoming the first official Christian state.
Tiridates declared Gregory to be the first Catholicos of the church and sent him to Caesarea to be consecrated. Upon his return, Gregory tore down idol centers, built churches and monasteries, and ordained hundreds of priests and bishops. While meditating in the old capital city of Vagharshapat, Gregory had a vision of Christ coming down to the earth to strike it with a hammer. From the spot rose a great Christian temple with a huge cross. He was convinced that God wanted him to build the main Armenian church there. With the king’s help, he did so, along the lines of what he saw in the vision at the spot he saw the hammer strike. He renamed the city Etchmiadzin which means “the place of the descent of the only-begotten”.
Initially the Armenian church participated in the larger church world. Its Catholicos was represented at the First Council of Nicea and the First Council of Constantinople. Although he could not attend the Council of Ephesus, the Catholicos Isaac Parthiev sent a message agreeing with its decisions. The Armenian church began to retreat from the larger church world in 373 when King Pap appointed the Catholicos Yusik without first sending him to Caesarea for commissioning.
Christianity was strengthened in Armenia by the translation of the Bible into the Armenian language by the Armenian theologian, monk and scholar St. Mesrob Mashtots. Until the fifth century, Armenia had its own spoken language, but not written. The Bible and liturgy were in Greek. The Catholicos Sahak commissioned Mesrob to create an Armenian alphabet, which he completed in 406. Subsequently the Bible and liturgy were translated into Armenian and written down in its new script. This began a cultural renaissance with the production of a host of Armenian literature.
Unlike other eastern churches, the Armenian Bible originally had 39 books in the Old Testament. What are commonly called the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books were not translated until the 8th century and not read in the churches until the 12th century.
Historically, the Armenian church has been referred to as monophysite by both Catholic and Orthodox theologians because it (as well as the Coptic Orthodox Church) rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, which condemned monophysitism. The Armenian Church officially severed ties with Rome and Constantinople in 554, during the second Council of Dvin where the dyophysite formula of the Council of Chalcedon was rejected.
However, the Armenian Orthodox Church argues that this is an incorrect description of its position, as it considers Monophysitism, as taught by Eutyches and condemned at Chalcedon, a heresy and only disagrees with the formula defined by that council. The Armenian church instead adheres to the doctrine defined by Cyril of Alexandria, considered as a saint by the Chalcedonian churches as well, who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature, where both divine and human nature are united. To distinguish this from Eutychian and other versions of Monophysitism this position is called miaphysitism.
In recent times, both Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian churches have developed a deeper understanding for each other's positions, recognizing their substantial agreement while maintaining their respective theological language. Hence, the Monophysite label is avoided when describing the Armenians' or Copts' belief regarding the Nature of Christ.
It is headed by a Catholicos (the plural is Catholicoi). Although it is traditional in Eastern churches for the supreme head of the church to be named Patriarch, in the Armenian Apostolic Church hierarchy, the position of the Catholicos is higher than that of the Patriarch. The Armenian Apostolic Church presently has two catholicoi (Karekin II and Aram I)and two patriarchs (subordinate to the Catholicos of All Armenians), plus a number of Primates, Archbishops and Bishops, lower clergy and laity serving the church.
The Catholicos of All Armenians represents the centralized authority of the Armenian Church. He is the supreme judge and the head of the legislative body. He is President of the Supreme Spiritual Council as well as the College of Bishops. Ordination of bishops, blessing of Holy Chrism, proclamation of Feasts, invitation and dismissal of National-Ecclesiastical Assemblies, issuing decrees concerning the administration of the Armenian Church and establishing dioceses are part of his responsibilities.
The National-Ecclesiastical Assembly, convened in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, elects the Catholicos for life. The members of the Assembly are a balance of Clergy and Laity, with set numbers determined on regional population.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is one of a few apostolic churches in the world to have a democratic system; the people decide if they want to keep priests in their churches and may ask for different ones, as do some other ecclesiastical constitutions, such as Baptists and other Congregational churches.
Note that the Armenian Apostolic Church should not be confused, however, with the Armenian Catholic Church whose Patriarch-Catholicos (of the Armenian Catholic Rite) is Nerses Bedros XIX, which is an Eastern Catholic church in communion with the Holy See in Rome.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is divided into two Holy Sees, with the Catholicos of All Armenians residing in Echmiadzin, Armenia, having pre-eminent supremacy in all spiritual matters over the Holy See of Cilicia, located in Antelias, Lebanon, which administers to the Dioceses under their jurisdiction as they see fit. The two Holy Sees are as follows:
The Supreme Spiritual and Administrative leader of the Armenian Church is Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, who is the worldwide spiritual leader of the Nation, for Armenians both in Armenia and dispersed throughout the world. He is Chief Shepherd and Pontiff to 9,000,000 Armenian faithful. The spiritual and administrative headquarters of the Armenian Church, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, located in the city of Vagharshapat, Republic of Armenia, was established in 301 AD
The Armenian Church has changed and developed to meet the needs of the faithful over her 1700 year history. Administratively, great care has been taken to be inclusive of a wide cross-section of the faithful. Both clergy and lay are involved in today’s administrative structure of the Church. Led by Karekin II, the spiritual and administrative work of the Armenian Church is carried out in the Republic of Armenia in the areas of Religion, Preparation of Clergy, Christian Education, Construction of new Churches, Social Services, and Ecumenical activities. Underneath this administrative structure are the hierarchal Sees:
The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia located in Antelias, Lebanon, is a regional See with current jurisdiction of the Dioceses of Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus as temporarily granted to her by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1929, led by Catholicos Aram I.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem which has jurisdiction over all of the Holy Lands and the Diocese of Jordan, led by Archbishop Torgom Manoogian.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and All of Turkey, which has jurisdiction in the modern day Republic of Turkey led by Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan.
The three historic aforementioned hierarchal sees administer to the Dioceses under their jurisdiction as they see fit, however, the supremacy of the Catholicosate of All Armenians in all spiritual matters remains pre-eminent.
The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia located in Antelias, Lebanon, is a regional See with current jurisdiction of the Dioceses of Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus as temporarily granted to her by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1929, led by Catholicos Aram I; and with Prelacies under its continuing jurisdiction within the United States.
The divisions of the two Catholicossates stem from frequent relocations of the Church headquarters under Ottoman Rule. The schism was further reinforced during the period in which Armenia was part of the Soviet Union when various churches affiliated with one of the two Holy Sees of the church. Despite efforts of reunion, the division continues to date, although significantly, in the nineties, the same individual, Karekin II Catholicos of Cilicia for the period 1983-1994, was elected, upon the death of Vazgen I as new Catholicoss of All Armenians in 1995 becoming Karekin I Catholicoss of All Armenians residing in Echmiadzin and serving as Supreme head of the church until 1999, he was not able to unite the two Catholicossates.
The Armenian Apostolic Church also has two Patriarchates of high authority both under the jurisdiction of Catholicos of All Armenians. They are:
Armenian priests below the rank of bishop are allowed to be married before ordination and their descendants' surnames are prepended with the prefix "Ter" (or "Der" in Western Armenian), meaning "Lord", to indicate their lineage.
Also of particular importance are the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in Turkey and the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran (see also Christians in Iran). These churches represent the largest Christian ethnic minority in both of these predominantly Muslim countries, Turkey and Iran.
Apostolic Churches in Asia