Decision of the Bulgarian Church: A policy of self-imposed marginalization

June 4, 2016 in Comments

Author: Dr. Smilen Markov


On June 1st, 2016 the governing body of the Bulgarian Patriarchate (the Synod of the metropolitans) announced a decision, demanding the postponement of the Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church, due to take place in June this year on the Island of Crete. The metropolitans have unanimously agreed that if the Synod anyway meets on Crete as planned, the Church of Bulgaria will not attend.

The Bulgarian Synod enumerates 6 reasons, seen as insurmountable obstacles for participation and as sufficient arguments for postponement of the Synod. Fist, the metropolitans are convinced that it is not worth travelling to Crete, since the issues brought to discussion are not vital for the Orthodox Church. The second marriage of priests and the so called mixed marriages are pointed out as issues, important for today’s life of the Church in Bulgaria, but missing in the agenda. The second reason mentioned is the critique to the proposed draft documents, which came from different local Orthodox Churches. Third, for the metropolitans in Sofia the adopted procedure for the work of Synod makes introducing of amendments to the draft documents impossible. The fourth and the fifth obstacles pertain to the disposition of delegates and guests in the hall of the Synod. At the end, the Patriarchate of Sofia expresses concern that the expenses are too high and unreasonable. In an interview to the Bulgarian National Television the speaker of the Bulgarian Synod said that the amount of 120 000 EUR was demanded from the Patriarchate, without a breakdown of costs.

An objective and sober examination of these arguments proves them false, weak and irrelevant. However, for those familiar with the style of this jurisdiction this stance is not a surprise.

It is an element of a thorough and consequent strategy for self-imposed marginalization. The unwillingness to come into dialogue with the sister Orthodox Churches, as well as with the rest of the Christian and non-Christian world is to be seen on many levels and is historically, culturally and mentally grounded.

The hazardous effects of this policy torment the flock of the Patriarch of Sofia – the clergy, the monks and the lay people.

After the removal of the Schism in 1945, the Bulgarian Church could not inhale even for a second the joy of the restored pan-Orthodox communion. This same year marks the beginning of the severe Bolshevik terror over the entire Bulgarian nation. For a period of 45 years all religious organizations in the country have been oppressed, many of them have been banned and hundreds of priest of all denominations have been either sent to concentration camps or (and) killed. Even one Orthodox metropolitan was assassinated on his way out of the church after liturgy. Beside this martyrdom, what was really destructive for the Church was the almost complete subordination of the hierarchy to the Communist state, with the majority of bishops being obliged to work for the secret police.

In this context the international contacts were quite frustrating for the entire flock, since all meetings with representatives of other Churches and denominations, including the work in the World Council of Churches, were used by the state as opportunities for promoting the interests of the Communist party and of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, after the fall of the iron curtain in 1989 this model was further stabilized and in some aspects the situation even worsened. A strong proof for that is the Schism within the Bulgarian Church (1992-1998) initiated by circles, dependent on the former networks of power. As a result, the Church is now receiving pressure from formal and informal lobby groups with different geopolitical orientation. This leads to reluctance to working on international level, especially with non-Slavic Orthodox jurisdictions and with representatives of other religions.

The historical context given above sheds light on the specific understanding of the Bulgarian high clergy concerning theology and academic life in general. The notorious underestimation of theology in Bulgaria has led to a complete isolation between the Church and the state theological faculties. Unlike other traditional Orthodox countries, none of the Bulgarian metropolitans, with the only exception of the Patriarch, has ever held a position in a theological faculty.

The abyss between education and church life gives rise to incompetent and theologically inadequate decisions in matters concerning ecumenism. This is a serious barrier to the participation in any theological dialogue and one of the basic motifs for withdrawal.

When it comes to international contacts, the Bulgarian side is very often following the position of the Russian church. It is not a mere coincidence that in the decision for withdrawal two of the six arguments are borrowed from a letter of the Patriarch of Moscow to the Patriarch of Constantinople. But it would be highly unrealistic to conclude that the decision for withdrawal is a result of a direct interference from Moscow. Indeed, whereas some very critical comments on the draft documents came from the Russian Church, the Moscow Patriarchate is ready to take part in the Synod and Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokalam expressed his strong support for the document on the relations with the non-Orthodox Christians. Probably this nuanced position of the Russian Church has stunned the Synod in Sofia. The critic from the Greek-speaking churches and theological circles, as well as from Athos is also nuanced and multi-faceted. Although the official opinion of the Bulgarian Church concerning the draft documents follows some of the critical voices from the above-mentioned centers of Orthodoxy, it fails to produce a coherent and theologically-grounded evaluation of the texts. This uncertainty has probably also led to the decision not to take part.

Here we come to a principle of behavior, which can be labeled by the Latin phrase: in dubio non agere. Innocent as this “neutral” policy may seem, it is in fact destructive for the spiritual life of the jurisdiction. It implies unbelief that “the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My Name, will teach you of all things and will remind you of everything I have sent to you” (Jn. 14, 26). The isolation from the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, manifested in the dialogue, makes the Orthodox community in Bulgaria prone to various cultural complexes, including nationalistic bias, ethnophyletism and xenophobia. The recent declaration of the Synod of the Bulgarian Church, which identified the refugees seeking shelter as a threat, as well as the appeal to treat all non-Orthodox Christians as heretics are two of many examples.

Everything said leads to the conclusion that a remedy for the illness is needed. The proper reaction should be to try to find new possibilities for engaging a larger number of the members of the Orthodox flock in Bulgaria in pan-Orthodox communion and dialogue. Thus, step by step, the joy of mutual love and understanding could be induced to the whole community of the Bulgarian Patriarchate, including the Synod of metropolitans.

1266481_10151674006078339_74786188_o-2 copyAuthor: Smilen Markov is a Bulgarian theologian and philosopher. He did his PhD at the University of Cologne with a book on the Metaphysical synthesis on John of Damascus (Brill, 2015). At present he is assistant professor in Christian philosophy and Byzantine theology at the Theological Faculty of the University of Veliko Turnovo.

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