The church is an organized society. It is composed of all the baptized persons who are united in the same Faith, the same Holy Communion, the same Sacraments, and under the same Ecclesiastical authority. Those who exercise this ecclesiastical authority form the ministers or officers of the Church who serve God, teach and sanctify the faithful, and govern the Church. This authority to serve, to teach, to sanctify, and to govern is not given by elections or appointment, but by a sacred ritual which is called ordination.
Ordination or Holy Orders is one of the important sacraments of the Church. Through ordination men receive the power and grace to perform the sacred duties of a minister of the Church.
It is true that by Baptism all Christians are endowed with the “priesthood” of laymen, who have thus the obligation to offer up to God the spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving, prayers and acts of faith, hope, and charity. But only those men who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders are ministers of God in the full sense of the word.
The sacrament of Ordination is administered always by a bishop. There are various orders in the Church, and consequently, there are various forms of ceremonies by which each one of these orders is conferred. However, the one act that is common to all of these various orders is the imposition of hands by the bishop. That is why Ordination is also called “the Laying on of Hands,” “Tzernatroutiun” in Armenian.
For the ordination of any cleric, except a bishop, one bishop is sufficient to administer the Sacrament. The consecration of a bishop, according to the rules of the Armenian Church, is performed by His Holiness the Catholicos, having at least two other bishops assisting him at the Ordination. The consent of the laity is expressed formally at the service of Ordination by the choristers when they sing: “he is worthy.”
In the beginning the Apostles were the sole ministers in the Church. They were teachers, sanctifiers and rulers in the Church. They even used to administer the material needs of the faithful. However, as the membership of the Church increased, the Apostles created other officers to assist them. The first order thus established was that of deacons. The first deacons were elected by the faithful and were appointed and ordained by the Apostles to distribute alms, as well as to serve the public dinner tables at which Holy Communion was administered (Acts. ch. 6).
The Apostles also chose, appointed and ordained other assistants to help them in baptizing the converts, in administering the Holy Communion and for other functions in the Church. These men were called Elders. They were the predecessors of our present day priests. (The Greek word for elder is Presbyter from which the English word priest is derived).
The Apostles did not stay permanently in a town or country. There were ordered by our Lord to go to all parts of the world to preach the Gospel. Therefore, before leaving a town or country, where they had already established a flourishing church, they used to appoint an able and dependable person to supervise the Christian communities of the area and to act with full authority in the name of the Apostles. These men were the successors to the Apostles in their own locality, such as a large town, a province, or even a state. They were called Bishops, Episcopos, which is a Greek word meaning “overseer.”
There are, therefore, basically three main orders in the Church: Those of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. These three orders have been instituted in the Church since the time of the Apostles.
At present Deacons assist the bishop and priest in the church during the divine offices, by singing, censing, and bringing the gifts to the holy altar during the Divine Liturgy.
The Priests administer all the sacraments except the Holy Orders and are the shepherds and the leaders of local churches under the bishop.
Bishops, with the full power of the Apostles, are the governors of various Dioceses of the Church. They alone administer the Holy Orders. According to the canons of the Armenian Church, Bishops alone are authorized to consecrate churches, altars and baptismal fonts.
In addition to these three basic orders, there are in the Church, many other ranks and offices: some of them are higher, others lower.
The higher ranks are those of Archbishop, Patriarch and Catholicos. They have higher authority and jurisdiction in administrative matters.
In its proper and ancient meaning, the Archbishop was a prelate who had other suffragan bishops to assist him in governing his diocese. Greeks use the word Metropolitan instead of Archbishop. At present in the Armenian Church “Archbishop” is only an honorary title given by His Holiness the Catholicos to those bishops who are distinguished by their position or good record of activity.
The office of Patriarch is the highest in the Greek Church. In our Church, however, the Patriarch is an archbishop, who occupies one of the historical patriarchal Sees of Jerusalem or Constantinople. Patriarchs are independent in all administrative matters within the area of their own jurisdiction.
The office of Catholicos is the highest office in the Armenian Church. The Catholicos is the head of the whole Armenian Church. It is a Greek word meaning General. The full title of the head of the Armenian Church is “Supreme Patriarch Catholicos of All Armenians.”
The Primate or the Ordinary of a Diocese (Arachnort) is a high ranking clergyman who holds the highest position and authority in a given diocese. He may have a lower order than that of a bishop, and even if there are retired bishops or even archbishops in his diocese, they come under his jurisdiction in matters of administration.
Vartabed is an academic church title given to a celibate priest who has the necessary education.
Dzayrakoun Vartabed is an honorary title given to those Vartabeds who have been elected primate, or who have distinguished themselves by their learning in the fields of theology, religious teaching, and Holy Scripture, etc. It corresponds to Doctor of Divinity in the Western Church.
Apegha is a celibate priest, attached to a monastery.
Archpriest is also an honorary title given to those priests who have fruitfully served their church for long years or who have distinguished themselves in outstanding service to the Church.
Minor orders of which there are as many as six, are given to those who take care of the material building of the church and assist in the Divine Office, by singing, reading the lessons, etc. They are Doorkeepers, Psalmists, Readers, Acolytes or candle bearers, and Exorcists, whose function is to read prayers over sick people. Subdeacons have the highest rank among the holders of minor orders. For each one of these minor orders the proper symbols of the office are given to the candidate at his ordination.
These differences of rank and office are necessary for the proper government of the Church. Without them the Church would be a society without organization.
“I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying of my hands,” writes St. Paul to his disciple Timothy (2 Tim. 1 : 6). The “Gift” or the Grace which is given to a minister at Ordination is the spiritual authority to fulfill all his duties worthily and in a manner pleasing to God, and to live a virtuous life in conformity with his calling.
A candidate for Holy Orders must be a person fit for his task, having good moral character, knowledge of the Bible and Church laws. He should be well trained in the ritual of the Church. He must be a man of faith, piety, and wisdom. He must be healthy in body, without physical impairment, which would prevent the performance of his duties in the ministry of the Church.
All members of the Church, whether clerical or lay, constitute together the Faithful; faith being the basic virtue of a Christian.
A good Christian has before him a wide scope of activity in the community, if he or she wishes to participate in the work of the Church. It is a great service to the Church if a family encourages one of its young members to consecrate his life to the service of God and His Church by becoming a priest. If this is impossible, a family should try to defray the expenses of a candidate for priesthood in one of the seminaries of the Church.
People may devote themselves to the service of the Church not only by entering Holy Orders, but also in the lay state. The latter service is, sometimes, as valuable and meritorious before God as the service rendered by entering the Holy Orders.