The Bulgarian Exarchate after the First World

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The First World War ended with a crushing defeat for Bulgaria. Consequently, at the end of September 1918 the Bulgarian Exarchate lost its Macedonian dioceses again. At the Treaty of Neuilly, signed on 2 7 November 1919, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church lost most of its Strumica diocese (Strumica, Radovis, Valandovo), the border districts of the Sofia diocese (Tsaribrod, Bosilegrad) and western Thrace, where the diocese of Maronia, having its episcopal seat in Gumurdjina, had existed since 1913. In European Turkey the exarchate managed to preserve its Adrianople diocese, which from 1910 until the spring of 1932 was governed by Archimandrite Nikodim Atanasov (who became Bishop of Tiveriopol after his ordination on 4 April 1920). Also on Turkish territory was the temporary diocese of Lozengrad, governed between 1922 and 1925 by the Bishop of Nisava, Hilarion. He was succeeded by the former Metropolitan of Skopje, Neophyte, who also governed the neighbouring diocese of Adrianople from 1932 until his death in 1938. Afterwards it fell to the Exarchal Deputation to look after the Bulgarian Orthodox Christians in European Turkey. After the death of the former Metropolitan of Veles, Meletius, on 14 August 1924, the following hierarchs occupied the post of exarchal deputy: the former Metropolitan of Ohrid, Boris (1924-36), the Bishop of Glavinica, Clement (1936-42) and the Bishop of Velitsa, Andrew (1942-5).

After the end of the First World War a movement for church reforms grew apace in Bulgaria. It was backed by priests and lay theologians, as well as some of the hierarchs of the Church. Realizing that the new historical conditions called for reforms, on 6 November 1919 the Holy Synod decided that the Statutes of the Exarchate were to be amended. The government of Alexander Stamboliyski was informed and it approved of the initiative. To put into practice its intentions the Holy Synod appointed a commission (chaired by the Metropolitan of Varna and Preslav, Symeon) which had to prepare a well-founded draft for the amendment of the statutes. As a minister of foreign and religious affairs, however, Stamboliyski surrounded himself with a group of theologians, led by Hristo Vurgov, Peter Chernyaev and Archimandrite Stefan Abadjiev, who did not trust the bishops and their initiatives. On 15 September 1920, without consulting the Holy Synod, Stamboliyski introduced in Parliament a bill amending the Statutes of the Exarchate. The bill became law, was confirmed by royal decree and promptly promulgated. According to Article 3 of the new Act, in the space of two months the Holy Synod was obliged to prepare and convene a council of the clergy and the laity. This approach was resented by the bishops, and in December of the same year an episcopal council drew up a 'draft amendment to the law for the convocation of a Council of the Church and the People'.

Thus a fierce conflict flared up between the Holy Synod and the government, which would not budge from its position and even asked military prosecutors to start judicial proceedings against the bishops. A coup was being prepared against the hierarchs of the Church: the members of the Holy Synod were to be arrested, deposed and replaced by a provisional governing body. After much effort and compromise the conflict was eventually defused, elections for delegates were held, and the Second Council of the Church and the People was opened on 6 February 1921 at the Church of the Seven Holy Apostles of Bulgaria in the capital city of Sofia. Tsar Boris III also attended the liturgy. The regular sessions of the council began on the following day in the Parliament building. Apart from a couple of recesses, the council was in session until 16 February 1922. It is interesting to note that the Macedonian dioceses were represented by clerics and lay delegates elected from among the refugees from Macedonia.

The draft statutes tabled for discussion were genuinely democratic. According to their provisions the Council of the Church and the People was the supreme legislative authority in the Church. After their adoption the statutes comprised 568 articles divided in four sections and were essentially a detailed and systematic exposition of Bulgarian ecclesiastical law. This was a legal system based on the supreme principle of the democratic assembly, that is, it guaranteed the participation of the clergy and the laity at all levels of government, while preserving the leading role of the episcopacy. The Statutes of the Exarchate adopted by the Council of the Church and the People were approved without any amendments by an Episcopal Council held in 1922. They were then approved by Parliament on 24 January 1923. Because of the fall of Stamboliyski's government the procedure of the statutes' approval could not be brought to conclusion and they never came into force. Despite the insistence of the members of the Synod, the new statutes were never reintroduced into Parliament. A decree, having the force of a law, made some amendments to existing statutes concerning the full and the lesser Synod, the election of exarch and some other matters.

After the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 the role of the Church gradually became less prominent and its importance decreased. The role that the Church used to play in the sphere of culture and education was taken over by the new state institutions, which were shaping the way of thinking and the world outlook of the Bulgarians. Besides, the Bulgarian clergy proved, on the whole, to be undereducated and found it difficult to adapt to the new conditions. At the end of the Russo-Turkish War there were two schools for priests, neither of which offered a complete course of study: one at the SS Peter and Paul Monastery near Lyaskovets, and the other in Samokov. In 1903 the latter was moved to Sofia and became the precursor of the Theological Seminary. The Seminary in Constantinople was closed down after the Second Balkan War (1913) and continued to function in Plovdiv, starting with the school year 1915/16. Besides the two seminaries, schools for the basic education of priests were opened at the Rila, Bachkovo and Cherepish Monasteries, in which the practical details of the church services were taught. The theological faculty of Sofia University did not open until 1923.

According to the available statistics in 1905 there were 1,992 priests in Bulgaria, of whom only two had higher theological education and a further 309 were graduates of secondary theological schools. The majority had graduated from the general secondary schools and 607 had not gone beyond the primary or even elementary level. In 1938 the number of priests had risen to 2,486 including 114 with higher theological education, 172 with secondary and 600 with primary or incomplete secondary education. The undereducated Bulgarian priests could not really minister to the spiritual needs of their parishioners or inspire and rally them round the Church.

After the outbreak of the Second World War the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had another opportunity of regaining its lost dioceses. After parts of Macedonia and Aegean Thrace were annexed by force of arms, their administration had to be organized accordingly. In the uncertain and complex conditions in the spring of 1941 the Bulgarian Exarchate was the first to prove equal to the challenge and lead the way by establishing and building up the structure of the church administration. As early as 29 April 1941 the full Synod discussed at an extraordinary session canonical measures for the restoration of the structures of the Bulgarian Church in the newly liberated dioceses.

The Holy Synod was quick to respond to the situation and promptly restored the administration of the Church in the territories that were formerly under the pastoral jurisdiction of the exarchate. It managed to do that thanks to its experience and preparedness. However, the ill-fated outcome of the war for Bulgaria and the fresh national catastrophe that followed led to the irretrievable loss of the dioceses in Macedonia and the Adrianople region of Thrace. Moreover, the lifting of the schism which followed soon thereafter confined the jurisdiction of the exarchate within the borders of the Bulgarian state.

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