This Communion was established in England on 2 November 1897 by the union of several small British episcopates established in the 1870s in reaction to the rising Anglo-Catholicism of the Church of England.
The Most Rev’d Leon Checkemian (1848 – 1920), an Armenian Uniate bishop, had moved to Britain and became a protestant Anglican and served as the first primate of the new Church.
The Most Rev’d Dr. Leon Checkemian
1848 – 1920
First Archbishop Primus of the Anglican Free Communion The Episcopal Free Church (Old name: The Free Protestant Episcopal Church- FPEC) 2 Nov 1897 – 30 Dec 1900
Leon Checkemian, the son of Jacob and Rose Checkemian (neé Gruchian) was born in 1848 at Malatia (the ancient Melitene) as a subject of the Ottoman Empire. Although originally a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, at the age of thirteen he met Dr. Leon (Ghevont) Chorchorunian (1822-1897), who had not long been ordained Armenian Catholic bishop of that city. Under his influence the family transferred its allegiance to the Armenian Catholic Church and, according to his own account, the young Leon travelled via Aintab and Aleppo to Iskenderun where he took the steamer to Beirut, crossed the Lebanon Mountains to meet the Patriarch. Presumably this was the celebrated Antony Hassun, who had served as spiritual leader of the community from 1845-48 but did not resume his office for a second term as Patriarch until 1866-1880. Although styled Patriarch of Cilicia, the church headquarters were at Bzommar near Beirut at that date, but moved to Constantinople from 1867-1928.
Checkemian was ordained to “the four degrees of subdeacon” on 20 November 1866; on the following day he was advanced to “the degree of high deacon” and on 27 November 1866 was “anointed priest” in Behesni at the hands of Archbishop Chorchorunian with the permission of Archbishop Nazarin and also the newly elected Patriarch Antonius Peter IX. He served as priest at Besui 1866-68, Aintab 1868,Gurum 1868-77, Malatia 1868-77 & 1878-81 before serving in Constantinople 1881-85 when he left the Armenian Catholic Church.
Checkemian’s claim to episcopal status does not appear until later. In 1901 he merely refers to himself as having “received from the Archbishop of Malatieh, Armenia, the degree of “Very Honourable Doctor”. According to his seal, adopted after 1898, Checkemian was “consecrated a Bishop at Malatia, Asia Minor, 1878” and his own account was that on 23 April 1878 he was consecrated as Bishop of Malatia in the great Cathedral of Malatia by Archbishop Chorchorunian , receiving the titles “Most Honourable Lord Doctor and Very Reverend.” As further evidence of his status Checkemian quotes from Medgemovie Havidis, a daily paper published in Constantinople. In its issue of 28 December 1881 it reports, “The Most Honourable Lord Doctor Leon Checkemian, who was ordained to the most honourable degree of Doctor by the Right Reverend Chorchorunian, most Illustrious Archbishop, and who was for a long time in Malatia, on his arrival at this time in Constantinople, directly went to St. Jean Chrysostom Church, and there with his brethren in the priesthood holding Communion unanimously yesterday in the same church, celebrated High Mass in the presence of crowds of people, which was heard joyfully. May the Almighty God again, with such help, make the nation glad and bring down men of evil thoughts.”
Although adduced as evidence of his episcopal status, the press report provides no conclusive evidence but rather supports the opinion that what Checkemian received from Chorchorunian was not the episcopate but one of the ranks of Wartabyd, vardapet. It was not uncommon for a diocese to be administered by a vardapet in the absence of a bishop and he was accorded quasi-episcopal insignia but not the episcopal status necessary to ordain. In his book, An Eastern Steps from Darkness to Light (1890) Checkemian had spoken of being “Equal to the bishop in all things, save the power of ordaining priests.”
“This was his Oriental way of translating a stipulation, made at the time of his consecration, that he should not confer Holy Orders during the life of Archbishop Chorchorunian except with special permission. In other words, he was Episcopus in partibus infidelium, a bishop without regular jurisdiction consecrated to assist another bishop, now commonly called a Titular or Missionary Bishop.”
In Armenian the word, A-a]nort, arachnort, referring to a diocesan prelate or primate, is a title given to the overseer of a given diocese. There are many cases in the Armenian Church where the arachnorts (primates) were vardepets and not necessarily bishops. A vardapet arachnort had all the powers and authority of a diocesan bishop, except the right to ordain priests. A vardapet who was arachnort had the right to confer only minor orders. It is possible, therefore, that Checkemian was the Arachnort of Malatia which means that he was the primate of that community and this translated rather into his claim to be Bishop of Malatia.
He arrived in England in 1885 and, like many penniless exiles, at first earned a living by menial jobs: as a stablehand and a sandwichman. He appears to have made his first ecclesiastical contacts with Anglicans as he quoted a letter from Dr. Frederick Temple, Bishop of London, dated 4 June 1886 stating that as he had not invited him to London, he could not be expected to maintain him. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Edward White Benson) was able to offer little practical support. Checkemian was to complain bitterly of the “cruel” way in which they had treated him, observing that “God made their hearts harder than stones.” Checkemian subsequently found a warmer reception among Scottish Presbyterians, notably with the Rev’d J.G. Cunningham of St. Luke’s Free Church, Edinburgh. They made their own enquiries about his background as we hear that Cunningham “sent out Dr. Checkemian’s Letters of Orders (which are in Armenian language) to a friend of his in Constantinople, who made local enquiries and found that they were correct as stated. The letters were returned and are now in possession of Dr. Checkemian.” In reporting this, Henry William Stewart, Rector & Rural Dean of Knockbreda, in the Church of Ireland, Diocese of Down, affirmed “I have seen the document and the seal but of course cannot read them.” In 1889 Checkemian is reported to have been preaching in the Presbyterian Churches of Belfast, notably Berry Street Church and St. Enochs Church, Belfast and it was noted that “He enjoys the confidence of and is warmly recommended by the most eminent men in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.”
In 1890 he was still preaching and lecturing in Belfast as Stewart noted, “He can now speak English fairly well and he hopes to become a naturalized English subject before he goes back to the East.” It was at this time that he was taken up by Archbishop Plunket, Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, as Stewart notes that Checkemian was still in Belfast on 5 September 1890 and had visited the Archbishop. Stewart had a high opinion of him, “I believe him to be a sincere man and to be a man capable of exercising a powerful influence over others … It is no doubt an ambitious undertaking, but he is evidently a man of great energy and perseverance.”
Archbishop Plunket dreamt of weakening the power of the Church of Rome by promoting Reformed Episcopal churches among indigenous Christians outside the immediate sphere of influence of Anglicanism. He took as his basis the decision of the 1878 Lambeth Conference to make a “solemn protest against usurpations of the See of Rome” and an undertaking that “All sympathy is due from the Anglican communion to the churches and individuals protesting against these errors and labouring it may be under special difficulties from the assaults of unbelief as well as from the pretensions of Rome.” He received Checkemian into the Church of Ireland and on 4 November 1890 granted him a General Licence in his own diocese of Dublin. Another license, issued from Dublin on 25 May 1891, gives a much fuller picture of Archbishop Plunket’s scheme. He was clearly satisfied with Checkemian’s adherence to the Reformed doctrines, “You have duly signified to us in writing your hearty assent to the Doctrine of the Church of Ireland and of the other churches of the Anglican communion and your intention to teach nothing contrary to the same and have moreover stated that whatever public services you may be called upon to hold will be ordered so far as circumstances will permit after the model of the Books of Common Prayer used by the churches of the said communion.”
Checkemian had obviously suggested that where he has trodden, others will follow, as Plunket observes that, “A large number of your fellow countrymen together with yourself have renounced your allegiance to the Church of Rome and have entreated you to visit your native country and to minister amongst them in the exercise of your office as a priest in the Church of God.”
It is clear that Plunket saw himself as giving provisional episcopal oversight to what he hoped would be a future self-governing independent anglican or episcopal community: “You in accordance with what you consider the usage of the Primitive Church desire to exercise your priestly office under due episcopal sanction and supervision pending the more complete organisation of those among whom you propose to labour and until such time as you may obtain legitimate source have appealed to us for whatever help in the above mentioned direction it may be in our power to bestow” and went on to “provisionally” authorise you to exercise your office of priest in the Old Catholic Armenian community wherein you have been requested to minister and we do hereby offer to you such provisional episcopal oversight as you may require in the exercise of that office.”
In addition Plunket provided Checkemian with a formal Testimonial, which the latter had printed and widely circulated. This expanded the points covered in the Archbishops licence: “He is not undertaking this duty for the purpose of winning our adherents to the Anglican Communion, or to any branch of that body. He is merely responding to a call from some among his own people, who, in obedience to their own religious convictions, and in the exercise of their own religious liberty, have spontaneously sought for his ministry. As to what may become necessary in the way of future Church organisation, he does not seem, so far as I can judge, to have formed as yet any definite resolve. His present desire is simply to preach the Gospel, leaving the result in Gods hand, and awaiting the indication of his will. Meanwhile, however, should any designation of his present position be called for, he would, I believe, prefer that he and those who have sought his ministry, should be regarded as ARMENIAN OLD CATHOLICS in other words, as a body of reformers who (in common with those bearing the same title in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal) repudiate the dangerous innovations and intrusive claims of the Church of Rome, but who, nevertheless, hold fast to what they consider old, and true, and scriptural, in the teaching and practice of the early Church of Christ.
As regards the Native Armenian Church, the attitude of Dr. Checkemian is somewhat different, and may, I think be described as follows: Admitting,as he does, that the charge of monophysite heresy brought against that church has been unduly magnified, he yet deplores the many erroneous doctrines and superstitious usages, such as the veneration of ikons, the invocation of saints, and the cultus of the Blessed Virgin which unfortunately prevail within it at the present time. On the other hand, he remembers that the Armenian Church has never so yielded to Papal usurpation, or so committed itself to any irrevocable formulation of error as to preclude a return to primitive purity and truth. He recognises, moreover, the indubitable claims which, but for the present degenerate conditions, it would have, as a National Church, on the allegiance of the people of the land. While, therefore, he cannot but sympathize with those among its members who are compelled to seek elsewhere for the spiritual food which the Armenian Church, as at present circumstanced, so lamentably fails to supply, he would most gladly welcome, and as far as possible encourage, any movement tending to internal reform whereby the many and diverse religious bodies throughout Armenia, which now stand aloof from that Church and from one another, might yet be presented with a safe and permanent basis of reunion within its ancient fold.”
It appears doubtful that Checkemian ever returned home to put these ideas to the test. In the 1890’s hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in pogroms ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The outbreak of renewed serious persecution of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which began with the Sassoun Uprising of 1894, would have been a strong deterrent. In the meantime, however, Archbishop Plunket was able to put his aspirations into practice when in September 1894 he consecrated Señor Cabrera as first bishop of a Reformed Church in Spain.
In the meantime Checkemian had moved to London. We know that he was living there from 23 June 1896 until 4 January 1901, when he moved to Edinburgh. It was at this time that he came into contact with a number of bishops of independent jurisdictions and it was through these contacts that he probably resolved to follow through Plunket’s vision by establishing his own church. One of these was Alfred Spencer Richardson, who had been consecrated bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church at Philadelphia in 1879. This Church is sometimes referred to as The Cummins Schism after its founder, George David Cummins (1822-1876), Assistant Bishop of Kentucky, who separated from the Episcopal Church in America “on the old evangelical basis, now and ever to keep this Church upon the platform of the Reformation.” Another contact was Mar Theophilus (Stevens), Patriarch of the Ancient British Church, which traced its apostolic succession to the Syrian Orthodox Church through Bishop Julius Ferrette (1828-1904). There was clearly common ground here as both Checkemian and Mar Theophilus had a distant, but common episcopal ancestry from Oriental Orthodox churches. They decided to cooperate together.
On 2 November 1897 at St. Stephen’s Church, East Ham, Checkemian presided at the episcopal consecration of Andries Caarel Albertus MacLaglen as Colonial Missionary Bishop in Cape Colony, South Africa. He was also given the title of Titular Bishop of Claremont of the Free Protestant Church of England which had just been founded with Checkemian as its first Archbishop. Checkemian was assisted by three bishops. “To settle any doubt of his status Bishop Stevens offered his assistance and consecrated Checkemian bishop sub conditione.”
Checkemian resided at 122 George Street, Edinburgh from 4 January until 26 June 1901 he signed his application for naturalisation as a British citizen in Glasgow on the latter date, having proved his residency in the United Kingdom for an unbroken period of five years and three days. His referees were all regarded as “exceptionally” respectable and responsible persons, as they comprised Dr. Cunningham and the elders of his church, “of which applicant became a member in 1891, and they have known him since then.” The Naturalization Certificate was duly granted on 14 August 1901 with the Oath of Allegiance taken on 17 August 1901.
Of Checkemian’s subsequent career there is little information. It would appear that he passed his responsibilities to Mar Theophilus within a few years of their union. We know that he subsequently contracted marriage as when he died at his home at 72, High Street, Tunbridge Wells, Kent on 3 December 1920 of a cerebral haemorrhage, his widow Amelia Robina Checkemian was present. Leon Checkemian was buried in the consecrated section of Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery in Grave No. B-6-263.
Checkemian’s contacts with Presbyterians and other non-episcopal Protestant groups do not suggest any loss of belief in traditional ministry, especially as he himself subsequently submitted to episcopal ordination. A contemporary account of him officiating refers to his “weighty” robes, ornate pastoral staff and with “the mitre an enormous and awe-inspiring spectacle.” If neither considered apostolic succession as of the esse of the church, they both at least considered it as of the bene esse.
Although encouraged by senior and influential hierarchs of the Anglican communion, neither project ever enjoyed full support of that church. He was received into communion and licensed at the highest level but were never really Anglican. The Anglican Church in the nineteenth century was closely identified with the power and prestige of the British Empire. It was a misleading picture, however, as so much depended on the fickle changes of British interests abroad and the equally volatile generosity of public opinion at home. Taken up by one hierarch, he were as easily dropped by the next who was wary of assuming the commitments of his predecessors. Isolated in an essentially hostile society, Checkemian, having once tasted the fruits of religious freedom in the West, could never return back to his roots. He pinned his hope on a Church which eventually failed him because it lacked the will to carry forward a vision set in progress without the consensus and support necessary to bring it to maturity.
Anglican hostility and Orthodox indifference, together with a lack of resources, meant that the Church was barely able to begin the missionary endeavour for which it had originally been established: Checkemian although endeavouring to advance the work of the Church and to unite various groups which sought Orthodox alternatives to Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, was essentially a visionary and a scholar, rather than a practical administrator or evangelist. He had a somewhat naive trust in those who approached him, and often left himself open to exploitation by men seeking the appearance, rather than the reality, of Orthodoxy. It was almost as if he believed that the truth of Orthodoxy was so self-evident and profound that anyone being exposed to it would not only accept it and be converted, but undergo an inner conversion of life as well. The simple-hearted charity with which Checkemian received potential converts often led to the pain of betrayal. Nothing has changed by now!
THE ARMENIAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
The official schism of the Armenian church in the VIth century did not prevent many bishops, along centuries, to remain in communion with the Universal Church. Henceforth, since the XIth century, the Armenians united their efforts to those of the Crusaders for the re-conquest of the Holy places, and entered in relation with the church of Rome. However, this union did not materialize. The rebirth of the Armenian Catholic Church did not take place until late 1742. It was recognized as such by the Pope Benoit XIV, and having at its head the patriarch Abraham-Pierre 1st ARDZIVIAN. Its residence was first at the Kreim, close to Harissa, then the patriarch bought land at Bzoummar where his successor built a convent and placed the first patriarchal ecclesiastical community which became thereafter a center of radiance for Lebanon, Cilicia, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Catholic Armenians have dioceses in countries of the Middle East, Europe and in the American continent. Three congregations or masculine religious institutes and a congregation of Catholic Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception share the monastic life. From 1928, the Armenian Catholic Church was again reorganized to the administrative, scholar, cultural and social level. The number of its supporters is evaluated at approximately thirty thousand, served by about thirty priests and monks, spread over eight parishes. The Armenian Catholic Church is present in the religious, cultural, political and social Lebanese scene. Although the Armenian people are scattered, they maintain a sense of their national, cultural and religious identity
ABRAHAM-PIERRE ARDZIVIAN (1679-1749)
At all times, and in every community, there were men who yearned more for science and truth than their contemporaries were. The Abbot Mekhitar (founder of the Mekhitarists Monks) and Abraham Ardzivian, founder of the Catholic Armenian Patriarchate belonged to this quality of men in the XVIIth century. Born at Aintap in 1679, ordained priest at Sis in 1706, designated bishop of Aleppo in 1710, Abraham Ardzivian was banned from his church because of his attachment to Catholicism. Expelled from his Aleppo seat by the secular arm of the Ottoman Empire, four times jailed and once condemned to galleys, in exile at the Island of Rouad, Abraham Ardzivian did not stop preaching his faith, to win other adepts everywhere he went, harassed by the emissaries of the Sultan. Hated by some, venerated by others, he was the head of spear of the movement of religious emancipation, that refused people to be taxed according to their adherence to the “millet” which was created by the ottoman authorities. In order not to grant to minorities of the empire their religious liberty except if centered in a determined “millet”. This movement of emancipation ended at Aleppo, the stronghold of Mgr. Ardzivian, who had in the meantime, taken refuge at the convent of Kreim after his liberation of the island of Rouad. He was summoned to rejoin his faithful to Aleppo, where they had succeeded in appropriating one of the two Armenian churches of the city. Mgr. Ardzivian arrived there in 1739. There he consecrated three Armenian Catholics bishops, attended by two Greek Catholic bishops. The three new bishops in their turn consecrated Patriarch Mgr. Ardzivian elected by his people on November 26, 1740. Yet the creation of an Armenian Catholic Patriarchate within the Universal church required the approval of the Chief of this same Church. Mgr. Ardzivian embarked then to Rome, where he was received heartily by Benoit XIV (1740-1758), September 5, 1742. The 8th December of the same year, the Holy Father granted him the Pallium. Then he wrote to the Maronite Patriarch Simon Rouad: “We want to ask you to have for our Venerable Brother Pierre, Patriarch, of Cilica for the Armenians Catholics, all considerations and the most cordial friendship. This to be agreeable to us. Because we have for him the highest consideration” (P. Raphael, “The Role of the Maronites in the return of the Oriental Churches “, Beirut 1935, p. 40). The official recognition by Rome of the patriarchal election of Mgr. Ardzivian made only more poisonous the already tense relations between the Sublime Door and the Western Powers accredited to Constantinople. Patriarch Ardzivian saw that he was forbidden to all harbors of the empire. He took refuge in his convent of Kreim, where the Maronite hierarchy received him with open arms on October 6, 1743. Henceforth he dedicated himself entirely to the consolidation of his Patriarchate and to the organization of St-Antoine’s Armenian Monks. After an illness he died on October 1st, 1749. “The Maronites arranged magnificent funeral ceremonies. One does not see something similar, said the chronicles.” (P. Raphael, op. cit. p. 41). Before his death, his last will was the transfer of his Patriarchal Seat to the Convent of Bzoummar, of which he ordered the construction, but saw it only with the eyes of the heart. *Abraham-Pierre I Ardzivian was badly understood by his contemporaries. He was taxed of ambitions, of little realism. It was made fun to foresee the end of his Patriarchate, once the founder disappeared. All this beautiful people had to undeceive himself, because the human aims were absent from the soul of this Apostle, and because providence wanted otherwise. Since, 16 Patriarchs followed him on this throne, 50 bishops of his Institute dedicated themselves to this work and 500 members of that same Patriarchal Institute gave themselves body and soul to continue his work everywhere Armenian communities were established. *Benoit XIV, his great friend, made this remark to him one day: “I strongly fear, that you will have troubles with the Patriarch of Etchmiadzine the day when he converts to the faith of his Fathers. That day would be the happiest of the mortals Holiness, and would serve him as the humblest of his servants”.
THE ROLE OF THE PATRIARCHAL SEAT OF BZOUMMAR AT THE SERVICE OF LEBANON
The history of the Convent of Bzoummar identifies itself with certain chapters of the history of ‘Lebanon’ “declared the future President of the Lebanese Republic, Mr. Charles HELOU on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Convent of Bzoummar, in 1949. The Lebanese Mountain had adopted Mgr. Ardzivian, this man full of faith and courage, as well as his Patriarchate. Relations, since the beginning, full of cordiality and kindliness between Maronites and Armenians, had pushed the Patriarch Jacques Rouad to grant them the right to construct a convent at Kreim in 1720; the Patriarch Joseph El-Khazen welcomed Mgr. Ardzivian home for some time after he was rescued from the island of Rouad. He had forbidden all priests of other oriental communities to hear confessions of the maronites faithful but “this prohibition, did not concern, he wrote, our dear brother Abraham and his priests. They all have power to confess, to celebrate the Holy Mysteries and to preach everywhere they want in our churches” (P. Raphaël, Op. cit. p. 37). The utmost of Reciprocal confidence, Mgr. Ardzivian would attend sessions of the Lebanese Council in 1736 and will sign its Acts. Mgr. Ardzivian in his turn interceded with Rome beside the Prefect of the Propaganda to push the request of Father Arsène Abd el-Ahad, Superior General of the Lebanese Religious who came to Rome to ask for financial aid in favor of his Order who were in debt. The Armenian Prelate named him Knight of the Church, using the privilege granted him quite lately by the Holy Father.
This Armenian Community adopted with love by Lebanon, did not stop rendering the same treatment. The three Armenian convents were as many centers of help at the service of peoples of Lebanon. The high esteem that emir Béchir the Great had towards this Armenian Convent, made him consider Mgr. Jacques Holassian, General Vicar of the Patriarch and Gregoire-Pierre Vl, as one of the pillars of his government; whom he kept often at his home. Mgr. Jacques was at the same time the confessor of Hussni Gihane, the emir’s wife, in whom he trusted in teaching her religious instruction and conversion to Christianism. During the darkest days of his political career, the emir Béchir donated in that same convent his riches. He died in exile and the Armenians buried him in their church in St. Sauveur in Constantinople, from where he was transferred to Beiteddine in 1946. These good relations heightened the prestige of this Convent and imposed the respect towards all Armenian names: honest people and devoted to the cause of Lebanon. Such were as well the first and the last of the “Moutaçarrif” or governors of the Lebanon: all two Armenians Catholics, Garabet Artine Daoud Pacha (1861-1868) and Ohannès Kouyoumdjian Pacha (1912-1915) worked for the interest of Lebanon, defending them against their hierarchical chiefs of Constantinople. But before assuming their new office, these, two valorous Armenians came to consult their Fathers of Bzoummar, of whom the secular cohabitation had proven to be useful for the guidance of this country, object of internal disputes. These Fathers, while keeping their national physiognomy, had served Lebanon in the social, moral and cultural domains.
This Patriarchal Institute provided a generation devoted to Lebanon; it inculcated this same spirit to all students that passed by Bzoummar, of whom we will mention only Rizcalla Hassoun (1823-1880) one of the great names of Lebanese journalism and one of its pioneers. Father Antoun Khandji (member of the institute of Bzommar) published in Arabic “Tarikh el-Ermen” (History of Armenia), edited in Jerusalem in 1868. Another member of the institute, Father Sikias published in Beirut Matboukh el-Ermen (Armenian Chronicles ) for the greatest glory of reciprocal understanding. Today, these centers of devotion at the service of Lebanon increased, thanks to the presence of 250.000 Lebanese Armenians, thanks also to the religious chiefs of these Communities established at Antélias, that came to shoulder the work of the Fathers of Bzoummar, enterprise at the service of Lebanon since