Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 22nd September 2013
22 September 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
It was certainly not the kind of phone call I was expecting late on a Sunday evening.
‘Good evening, Canon Andrew’
‘Good evening, Ara’
On the other end of the phone was the Chargé d’Affaires from the Armenian Embassy, now the acting Ambassador.
‘What can I do for you?’ I said.
So the story unfolded: the Foreign Minister from Armenia was visiting and would like to pay his respects at the statue and grave of Gladstone, one of the political giants of the nineteenth century, having uniquely held the office of Prime Minister and Chancellor, each on four occasions in a Parliamentary career spanning sixty years. A colossus of the Victorian era, his relationship with the monarch herself were notoriously frosty: ‘He always addresses me’, she famously said, ‘as if I were a public meeting.’
So all was arranged early the following morning, and we found ourselves just to my right in the North Transept where flowers were laid at Gladstone’s image, and a solemn moment marked at his grave.
It was then that I noticed that the brass cross on his tomb is unusual. A plain cross, but with small flourishes at the points, reminiscent of something more unusual still, not unlike the Armenian cross itself.
So I asked the Foreign Minister about the Armenian connection: what had brought him here? The answer was simple: Gladstone had used his political influence to speak out against atrocities committed by the Ottomans against the Armenian people. Indeed, the centenary of the subsequent Armenian genocide, in which 1¼ million people died, will be commemorated in 2015.
So who are these Armenians, and why might they be important to us?
In this series of sermons on Sunday mornings in September, I am speaking about the early Christian communities of the Middle East. In the past few weeks I have talked about Christians in Syria, and the Coptic community of Egypt. Both of these countries include significant Christian minorities who are part of the Oriental Orthodox Church, an early off-shoot of the Orthodox Communities of Greece Russia with which you may be familiar.
But in many ways these Christians are more ancient, more indigenous, more interwoven than anything in the West, with some like those in Syria still worshipping in the Aramaic language akin to that used by Jesus himself.
And as if to make the point about how deeply rooted Armenian Christianity is not only in its homeland but more generally in the Middle East, the Foreign Minister put me – gently and diplomatically – well and truly in my place as he left the Abbey.
One of the most honoured tombs in this House of God and House of kings is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. It is the national and original grave, from the end of the First World War, which has given rise to so many other such memorials around the world.
As I was proudly saying how this is the earliest such grave, he very politely informed me of one which was slightly older in Jerusalem. When I say, ‘slightly’ I am being very English in my understatement.
In 1895, a mosaic floor bearing Armenian inscriptions was uncovered in the Moslem Musrara Quarter of Jerusalem close to the Damascus Gate.
An inscription in Armenian letters reads: ‘For the memory and salvation of all the Armenians whose names the Lord knows’.
It is believed to be the fifth-century funerary chapel of St Poleucte, an officer of the twelfth Roman legion, who along many of his soldiers lies buried under the floor. It is the grave of their unknown soldiers, those ‘whose names the Lord knows’.
This is a powerful reminder that in the 400s AD there was a strong Armenian Christian community living and worshipping in Jerusalem. A community which still exists today and can be seen in the Quarter of the Old City which bears the same name.
The church in Armenia traces its apostolic roots back to Ss Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the first century, and became the first country to adopt Christianity as their national religion in 301 AD. Located to the East of what is now Turkey and to the north of Iran and Iraq, the Armenian Church truly is one of the ancient churches of the world, indigenous, authentic, integrated in their nation.
Armenian Christians have not simply remained in their homeland, but now form part of the broader pattern of Christianity in the Middle East and beyond. Not only is there an Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem – numbering now only a few thousand – but this ancient Christian church has spread throughout the region.
Armenian Christians have lived in Baghdad for centuries, their numbers swelled in the first part of the twentieth century by those fleeing the Ottoman massacres. In Iran, the largest Christian minority is Armenian: influential enough to have reserved seats in the Iranian Parliament. Not being Arabs, Armenian communities have retained their ethnic identity, mostly marrying within the community and maintaining their cultural integrity.
But in ending, I want to return to the question I have posed in each of these addresses: namely, why are these Christians important to us? Syrian Christians preserve some of the language and culture of Jesus’ own day. Coptic in Egypt express continuity with the earliest forms of worship.
While undoubtedly early converts, Armenians express something else which is equally important in Christian mission. That is the retention of a Christian identity in the midst of an entirely different culture. Armenians in Tehran or in Baghdad have had to endure persecution, civil unrest and have been accused of supporting the West. In all this, they have remained faithful to their Christian inheritance and continued to be a beacon for Christians worldwide