The Rift in the Church

The date 10 November 1989 marked the beginning of far-reaching democratic changes in Bulgaria. At long last the direct interference of the Bulgarian Communist Party in the affairs of the Church came to an end, but, as if by force of habit, subsequent governments have kept alive the practice of behind-the-scenes meddling. Under the government of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and Prime Minister Filip Dimitrov a frontal attack designed to tear apart the Church was launched. The executioner of the Bulgarian Church was hieromonk Hristofor Subev, a former physicist. He was a Member of Parliament and chairman of its Religious Denominations Committee.

The Religious Denominations Office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headed at the time by the retired lawyer Metodi Spasov was also doing his bidding. On 25 May 1992 Spasov issued Act No. 92, in which he accused Patriarch Maxim of being a Communist agent who had caused the degradation of the Church. For that reason Metodi Spasov 'dismissed' Patriarch Maxim and his loyal Synod and by the same administrative act appointed a new Holy Synod chaired by the Metropolitan of Nevrokop, Pimen. Thus the split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church - approved, supported and managed by the authorities - began with a brutal act of government interference in the affairs of the Church. The schismatics managed to win over several metropolitans and other members of the episcopate. Working by surprise and in the dead of night, on the eve of 1 June 1992 Hristofor Subev - who several days later was consecrated as Bishop of Makariopol - took over the building of the Holy Synod and the schismatics moved in. This marked the beginning of the open warfare between the legitimate Holy Synod headed by Patriarch Maxim and the schismatics, waged mainly over real estate. Churches, bishop's residences and other buildings were taken over by schismatics with threats and violence. These unseemly and shameful acts by hierarchs and clergy repulsed the faithful who, after 10 November 1989, had flocked freely and without fear to the churches and monasteries. The outrages continued with the consecration of new metropolitans and bishops by the schismatics. As a result, in many parishes schismatic bishops were installed. During the summer of 1994, a surprise night-time manoeuvre enabled the legitimate Synod to recover its building.

At the beginning of June 1994 the schismatics convened and held a Council of the Church and the People in Sofia, attended, among others, by the then Prime Minister Filip Dimitrov and the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Tatarchev. The council adopted new Statutes of the Church and canonized the nineteenth-century cleric and revolutionary Ignatiy (Vasil Levski) as St Hierodeacon Ignatiy. Afterwards the council proceeded with the election of a patriarch and on 4 June 1996 elected - from among three candidates, two of whom belonged to the legitimate Synod and had not agreed to be nominated -the Metropolitan of Nevrokop, Pimen, as a schismatic patriarch. Thus an even greater outrage was perpetrated.

In conformity with the Statutes of the Church the legitimate Synod convened the Fourth Council of the Church and the People, which was held from 2 to 4 July 1997. The council unanimously condemned the repressive actions of the atheist Communist regime and paid homage to its victims. Then a National Orthodox Conference of the Clergy and the Laity was convened in Sofia on 22 June 1998 on the initiative of the schismatics. It was attended by some members of the canonical Holy Synod. A decision was taken to convene an extraordinary National Council of the Church and the People on 20 October 1998. Worried by that decision the hierarchs of the legitimate Synod prepared the convocation of a Pan-Orthodox Church Council, which was expected to condemn the schism in the Church. On 30 September and 1 October 1998 a Holy, Extended and Supra-Jurisdictional Pan-Orthodox Council, convened at the invitation of the Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim and presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, was held in the solemn setting of the patriarchal cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Sofia. The council brought together patriarchs and archbishops, primates of local Orthodox churches, as well as metropolitans, bishops and clergy from all churches. The representatives of the schismatics - but not 'Patriarch' Pimen - appeared in person before the Pan-Orthodox Council to ask forgiveness for the sin of perpetrating a schism and 'building of an altar of their own'. They declared that they recognized His Holiness Maxim as Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, renounced the ecclesiastical ranks they had received during the schism, and appeared before the Pan-Orthodox Council as ordinary monks. Taking into consideration their repentance and desire to serve the Church, out of mercy and guided by the principle of economy (oikonomia), the council readmitted them into the fold of Orthodoxy. Their episcopal status was recognized and they were put at the disposal of the Holy Synod. The former 'Patriarch' Pimen renounced his claims to lead the Bulgarian Church, whereby the council lifted the anathema and the excommunication which were imposed on him and granted him the title of Former Metropolitan of Nevrokop.

However, barely one day after the dissolution of the council, the 'repentant' schismatics proved that their contriteness had been hypocritical and that they had mocked not only their flock but also all participants in the august Pan-Orthodox gathering. Their penitence was a farce, designed to save them from the condemnation of such a lofty ecclesiastical forum. The schism continued. When, after a long illness, the schismatic Patriarch Pimen died on 10 April 1999, the temporal authorities did not allow the holding of an election for a new schismatic patriarch. Instead, the young and ambitious Inokentiy was elected vicegerent chairman of the schismatic Synod and granted the non-vacant title of Metropolitan of Sofia. Thus the schism and the diarchy in the Church persisted for over ten years and continued to disrupt the life of the Orthodox Bulgarians. It is abundantly clear that the breach is very deep indeed and is maintained by forces outside the Church.

Meanwhile, in 1998, following the example of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church left the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. The reason for leaving the ecumenical movement was criticism on the part of some Christian circles, claiming that those who engaged in ecumenical contacts with non-Orthodox partners were guilty of abandoning some of the fundamental tenets of Orthodoxy. The governors of the Church did not manage to rebuff those allegations convincingly and chose to retreat as the easiest solution. In that way the Church retired into itself, or at any rate confined itself only to exchanges with other Orthodox Churches. In spite of this, the visit of Pope John Paul II to Bulgaria, which had been planned for many years, went ahead in May 2002. Any fears that it might have a negative effect on the Orthodox majority or lead to privileges for the Roman Catholic minority of about 50,000 proved totally unfounded.

On 20 December 2002 the Bulgarian Parliament passed a new Religious Denominations Act. It follows the Constitution in pointing out the historic role of the traditional Eastern Orthodox religion in the life of the Bulgarian people (according to statistical data from the mid-1990s, 87 per cent of the population of Bulgaria claim to be Orthodox Christians), whilst firmly proclaiming the complete equality of all religious denominations under the law.

Further reading

Clark, V. (2000) Why Angels Fall: A Portrait of Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo. London: Macmillan.

Crampton, R. J. (2005) A Concise History of Bulgaria, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dimitrov, I. Zh. (2001) Bulgarski tsurkovni obshtini zad granitsa (Bulgarian church communities abroad). Douhovna koultoura (Spiritual Culture) 12: 13-17.

Fine, J. V. A. (1983) The Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

-(1987) The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the

Ottoman Conquest. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Giatzidis, E. (2002) An Introduction to Postcommunist Bulgaria. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hupchik, D. P. (1993) The Bulgarians in the Seventeenth Century: Slavic Orthodox Society and Culture under Ottoman Rule. Jefferson, Mo.: McFarland.

-(2002) The Balkans: From Constantinople to Communism. London: Palgrave.

Meyendorff, J. (1996) The Orthodox Church: Its Past and its Role in the World Today. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Obolensky, D. (19 71) The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Papadakis, A. (1994) The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church 1071-1453 AD. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Pavlowitch, S. K. (1999) A History of the Balkans 1804-1945. London: Longman.

Runciman, S. (1930) The History of the First Bulgarian Empire. London: G. Bell & Sons.

-(1968) The Great Church in Captivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spinka, M. (1968) A History of Christianity in the Balkans. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books.

Stavrianos, L. S. (2000) The Balkans since 1453. London: Hurst.

Sullivan, R. E. (1966) Khan Boris and the conversion of Bulgaria: a case study of the impact of Christianity on a barbarian society. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 3: 55-139.

Todorova, M. (199 7) Imagining the Balkans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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