Armenian martyrs service

The Bishop gave the Address at a Special Service to remember the lives of the Armenian martyrs of 1915.

Commemoration of the Armenian Martyrs (recording accessible here)

Father, may we with St Gregory of Narek “speak with God from the depths of the heart” Amen

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Jesus Christ’s question in our gospel reading is a haunting one for everyone in this great church as we commemorate the martyrs in the presence of so many of the descendants of those who survived the Metz Yeghern, the Great Catastrophe of 1915. The baptism to which Jesus Christ refers is no merely ecclesiastical rite. In the original Greek of the New Testament the verb “baptizomai” was used of “being flooded with calamities”.

When taxed with his appalling crimes and asked whether he would not be execrated by future generations Hitler dismissed the suggestion with the sneering comment “who remembers the Armenians”. Historians debate whether he used those precise words but like so many of the great criminals in history, Hitler was confident that as the victors impose their version of history on the vanquished, his crimes would be forgotten.

Forgetting the Armenian martyrs of 1915 would be yet another betrayal. This service in the presence of the President of the Republic of independent Armenia and His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians is a contribution to a year of events which have sought to do justice to the suffering of the Armenian martyrs and to celebrate their legacy.

Remembering is a duty especially in our own day when the suffering of Christians and other communities in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya cries out for recognition and relief. Our act of remembrance this evening is a sign that such crimes against humanity will not be forgotten.

The past cannot be changed but we are responsible for how we remember it. What we extract and carry forward from what has gone before creates possibilities for the future or closes them off. In a sense we remember the future.

In this creative act of remembering, impartiality is not possible but honesty is a duty. Remembering is not so much taking down a file from the shelf containing some fixed representation of some past event as it about recombining multiple sources of information and experience. That is why the writing of history is always in the end, an art rather than a science although it is an art which must be practised with proper discipline.          

Public remembering in the form of commemorations, saints days and festivals have always contributed powerfully to the coherence and sense of identity among groups or nations. What and who we remember as individuals plays a vital role in forming our own identity. We are sad when with the onset of dementia more and more of a person’s memories are lost until that most painful point when someone we love cannot recognise us. Amnesia can undo civilisations as well. They die in the night when no one can remember why once upon time they inspired self-sacrifice.

Destiny and history are intimately connected. If a person only has a sense of history without a sense of destiny they can be very tedious. On the other hand anyone who has a sense of destiny without a sense of history is certainly very dangerous.

This evening we salute the efforts of the Armenian Church and people to secure a just recognition of the sufferings of the past. Everyone who honours the Armenian story is grateful for the courage of people like Hrant Dink whose work released a flood of memories especially of forced adoptions. The then Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan declared after Dink’s assassination – “A bullet was fired at freedom of thought and democratic life in Turkey”.

Talk about forgiveness when there has been no confession is too glib but the Armenian story is moving forward. This ancient nation settled on the Anatolian plateau for millennia has always demonstrated extraordinary resourcefulness in maintaining Armenian culture, despite being threatened by a succession of competing and opposing Empires. There are so many vivid illustrations of Armenian resourcefulness. I particularly enjoy the thought of a party of Western Capuchin missionaries who in 1707 arrived in Lhasa, believing themselves to be the very first Christians to reach the forbidden city of Tibet – only to find 5 prosperous Armenian merchants already in residence who offered to show them around.

Jesus Christ at supper with his friends on the night in which he was betrayed said “do this in remembrance of me”. It was not an invitation to recall an event which would recede into “far away and long ago”. They were to re-member him rather than dis-member him by quarrelling. Nourished by his story they were to be his members, his arms and legs, his feet and hands so that in their communities Jesus himself would be really present opening up a fissure through which God’s future could irradiate the world. In our solemn commemoration and celebration of the martyrs; in the outpouring of compassion for those innocents who perished in 1915, the Armenian people are preparing for great Armenian centuries to come.

I saw first-hand moving evidence of what is being done on a visit to Eastern Armenia earlier in the year. There were great events superbly organised but the memory which stays with me and inspires me with hope is the visit under the aegis of His Holiness to a youth centre in Yerevan established by the Church in a former Komsomol building. The talent and dynamism of the young contributors to the concert which we were privileged to attend, especially the unforgettable young duduk player, were powerful incentives to believe in the Armenian future. I was reminded of some words of Catholicos Karekin I – “The church everywhere in the world has to proclaim the truth that life is more than food and the body more than clothing.” He emphasised the crucial role of young people in building “a healthy well balanced church-nation relationship”, a “harmony” as a “source of regeneration of the spiritual values that are urgently needed by mankind at this critical time”.    

Armenian culture and enterprise have always flowered whenever historical circumstances in the region have permitted. In our own day as unchallengeable Western hegemony recedes to be replaced by a more genuinely multi-polar world the significance of places like Armenia which stands at the crossroads of the traffic between East and West has a fresh potential.

Then again in our growing global culture and economy the presence of the Armenian diaspora in so many lands where they have settled constitutes one of those networks which enriches communications without homogenising the world.

When this Abbey Church was consecrated in 1269, Leo II had just become King of Armenia and the alliance between English and Armenian Kings was already long established. Armenian expertise in military engineering especially castle building had an influence in these islands of the far West. The presence of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales together with our distinguished visitors from Armenia promises a renewal of these ancient ties consecrated in the blood of the martyrs and dedicated to the cause of international peace and harmony. In the words of His Holiness the Catholicos, following the example of the holy martyrs and through their intercessions we are constrained to work together for peace with justice “wherever human rights are trampled”, “wherever faith and identity are fanaticised.”

One of the most attractive and tragic victims of 1915 was Archimandrite Komitas who preserved much of the cultural heritage of Western Armenia by his collection of folk songs. He introduced polyphony into Church music as we have heard and also the organ. He was a figure of European celebrity and significance who spent many years in Berlin and Paris and even visited the Isle of Wight. He was traumatised by the events of 1915 and never recovered from the Great Catastrophe but in his poetry he calls out to us not only to remember but to keep turned towards the light,

“Every day, take a lantern, keep it bright as the light source of your mind –

Again and again take the inexhaustible fire as the hopeful cord of your heart.” May the souls of the holy martyrs rest in peace and rise in glory.