Reverend Julie Hoplamazian - An Armenian Priest in the Church of England
By Raffi Wartanian
“When will the Armenian Church address the question of what to do with women who feel called to serve God?”
The Reverend Julie Hoplamazian, 34, sits under a hand-sewn octopus puppet working through the stunning tetra-chords of Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune on a dusty Yamaha keyboard in the Brooklyn Heights studio apartment that she shares with her fiancé Mr. Jeremy Kerr, a novelist and puppeteer, and Takouhi, their rescued part-Australian shepherd, part border collie dog.
A native of Philadelphia, she was raised a daughter of her local Armenian community – she is herself a second-generation Armenian-American – where she graduated from the Armenian Sisters Academy and attended the local Armenian Church.
A graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, her aspiration to lead a religious community emerged during her undergraduate studies in Music Education at Gettysburg College.
Rev. Hoplamazian then worked at the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, the Armenian Orthodox Church’s headquarters in the eastern United States, where she coordinated college ministries hoping the Armenian Orthodox Church would lift the stained-glass ceiling barring the ordination of women priests. It took her six months there to realize prospects were dim, and another three years before she found a religious institution that matched her own values and would never hinder the pursuit of her calling – the Episcopal Church, North America’s offshoot of the Church of England.
The Reverend now serves as priest at Grace Church, a progressive and diverse Episcopal congregation. Hers is based in the heart of a Brooklyn Heights church designed by Richard Upjohn, a nineteenth century luminary in Gothic Revival architecture. We spoke at her home after a recent Sunday mass. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
You’ve lived out your spiritual life in two different faith traditions. How does the role of women differ in the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church?
In terms of access to leadership in the Episcopal Church, the doors have technically all been opened. We have our first presiding female bishop. At Grace, issues surrounding gender and leadership have mostly been resolved, and the parish is at a point where they’re looking at me to be a good priest, not to prove myself in this role.
Women in the Armenian Orthodox Church have many opportunities to get involved in their community’s life as leaders. They participate in parish councils, run Sunday schools, organize events, and more. They can access and affect all aspects of the church except its spiritual leadership, and for many women that’s okay. They feel very satisfied serving their church in other ways.
But when will the Armenian Church address the question of what to do with women who feel called to serve God and the church as the leader of a congregation? Will they actually engage in dialogue beyond just, “God gave men and women different roles, like distinct fingers on a hand that, similar to the church, needs all of its constituent parts in order to function as a whole”?
But then of course the first witnesses of the resurrection and the first preachers of the gospel were women. Jesus trusted his message of resurrection to women first, but for some reason the Armenian Church won’t give that the same weight or importance.
The (Armenian Orthodox) church won’t respond to that. They’ll say, “the women were the apostles to the apostles and of course we laud and herald women as central to the mission of Christ but we’re just going to ignore all the parts of the bible that seem to have any weight in that and just talk about the parts that uphold male-only priesthood”.
I think the Armenian Church doesn’t want to have the conversations I heard in seminary, which were all about: What does the bible really have to say? What are the theological arguments?
How can two churches with the same God have such different approaches?
In terms of sources of authority, the orthodox and catholic churches focus on two pillars: scripture and tradition. These inform the church as to what its teachings are and what church life will be, and this includes ordaining only male priests.
The Armenian Orthodox church has had a quiet, stable existence. It’s commendable, and it has remained so by building strong and almost impervious walls around itself. Perhaps by virtue of being an immigrant or an ethnic church as well, it had to protect itself from assimilation, but in doing so, it has also alienated people like me who straddle both cultural worlds. I brought questions from the “other side” and felt I had to just sort of fall in line or there was no place for me. That was my experience. I don’t think it was the church trying to be horrible. I think that’s just the way it survives.
In the Episcopal Church there are three pillars of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. And I realized this was the missing piece. You honor what came before, but you also honor how the spirit moves now. That’s why the Episcopal Church has been able to be so traditional in many ways and so progressive in others. It is socially progressive when you look at issues surrounding homosexuality, female clergy, poverty, injustice, and homelessness.
A Roman Catholic theologian observes that the priest is the representative of Christ on earth, the icon of Christ, a male. But the concern becomes soteriological– it’s about salvation – and if only men can represent Christ, then how does Christ represent women, particularly on the cross? And so Christ on the cross is somehow male in figure, but he represents all of humanity, not just the male half. That was very compelling for me to think about.
The Armenian Orthodox clergyman to whom I raised this question scoffed, saying it was “the most ridiculous thing” he had ever heard. I really wanted to have a conversation, but I don’t know how the role of women can be explored further unless the Armenian Orthodox church is willing to have the conversation and engage in true theological and biblical dialogue and not just shun anything that threatens the status quo.
What were the best and worst parts of working at the Diocese of the Armenian Church?
What I enjoyed the most was being around Armenians, speaking Armenian every day, being immersed in the cultural community, and really having whatever opportunity that could be availed to me to be part of the ministry of the church. To think about ways to reach young Armenians spiritually. That was very exciting for me. I really did love campus ministries. I loved working with college kids. Loved the alternative spring break trips. Loved getting to know people much more closely doing volunteer work. I think Habitat (for Humanity) is a great organization and it gave kids a chance to go beyond altruism and really engage in Christian service and the trip allowed not only that experience but the dialogue and prayer that accompanied that. Faith in action, really.
Having Armenian colleagues was great. My Armenian has suffered since I left. I’m not speaking it on a daily basis anymore and I miss that. I miss working in Manhattan. And that particular job opened me up to fun things like working at camp all summer. It wasn’t just office work. Getting to know Armenians all around the country was great.
The worst part, I think, was feeling called to ordained ministry in a job and a church where that was completely silenced, and taking the job with the hopes of seeing what potential there might be for that kind of progress or change and very quickly realizing that was never ever going to happen. And then I figured okay, there is no shot in hell that I’ll ever get ordained in this Church: What do I do with the calling that I feel in this church? How can I really minister to these people in whatever way I’m called to here and now? And then moving through that to: This is not enough; this is not where I’m being called to. I am depressed. I am on Sundays not even able to get out of bed to go to work because I can’t stop crying. I was never more depressed than when I was working there.
And, of course, years of therapy and work on myself later I realized it’s because I was not living my calling. I was not where God called me to be. Once I was ordained and working in ministry I said I had never felt so at home in my own skin and that such a new and nice and natural feeling. And it was nice to talk about feeling natural at the altar without the accompanying conversation of “well are you just power hungry?” Or, “Well if you want this job then you’re obviously just seeking authority and power.”
I said, “No, I really feel a calling to this.”
Describe the process of transitioning from the Armenian Orthodox to the Episcopal Church.
Owning the call was scary at first. And the first time I ever admitted it out loud to an Armenian priest I trusted, he knew he could never wholeheartedly support me.
He just said, “Well if you feel that’s where god is calling you I’m not going to try to change your mind.” That was the most he could give me out of his own safety. And I think that was his way of saying, “You have my best wishes.”
Once I did own it, admitting it to people was the next step and that was really scary because you do face the fear of rejection and the condescension and the confusion and how much of this do I try and explain to people, and how much of it will they never get and is not worth explaining.
I attended an Episcopal church on weekends when I could, while working at the Diocese. There I befriended a priest who wanted to help me reach my goal and said, “I’ll do everything I can to help you in this process but the first thing you need to do is get a different job. You can’t enter the ordination process [to become a priest] when you’re part of a different church. You have to become an Episcopalian.” So it was a process of applying for jobs and finding an Episcopal home parish during the recession. I found one in Long Island that sponsored me for ordination and I got a job going back to my roots as a music teacher but shortly after that I worked as the parish secretary during my ordination process and they were very supportive and wonderful. The priest of that church was a fourth-generation Armenian from Lexington, Kentucky and that sealed the deal –we became kindred spirits and his wife became my mentor during the ordination process. They really helped me through some major challenges in the transition.
What are the best and worst parts of being an Episcopal priest?
The best part for me is being able to administer the sacraments. Whether it’s a funeral or a wedding or a baptism or Sunday Eucharist, I always feel it’s a privilege; every time. I’m awed by it. And being part of people’s life journeys. Being a priest is a weird job. You get intimate access to people’s best and worst moments and in some cases you’re almost a complete stranger and that is an enormous privilege and an enormous responsibility. I take that seriously and love that part of the job.
I don’t know if there’s a worst part. It depends on the day and the context. For some, the worst part is struggling to keep the doors open if you’re constantly worrying about fundraising or business end of it. Most priests are not business people – that’s not the class they teach you in seminary.
Photo: Reverend Julie Hoplamazian offers blessings after her ordination into the priesthood on December 8, 2012.( LI Herald.com)