Written by Vladimir Moss



     In 1872, an ecclesiastical schism took place between the Greek and Bulgarian Churches that lasted until the end of the Second World War. This article is a brief examination of the main outlines of its history and causes.

     In the Middle Ages the Bulgarian Church had already had a highly troubled relationship with the Great Church of Constantinople. More than once, the Bulgarian Church been granted autocephaly by the Patriarchate of Constantinople when the Bulgarian state was flourishing, only to have that autocephaly rescinded when the state declined. In 1393 Bulgaria was finally conquered by the Turks, as was Constantinople sixty years later. The Turkish Sultan then placed all the Orthodox Christians in Turkish-occupied territories under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1666-67 the patriarchate formally abolished the patriarchates of Serbia and Bulgaria.

     However, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Greeks, the Serbs and the Romanians gradually liberated themselves from the Turkish yoke. At the same time the independent Churches of Free Greece, Serbia and the Romanian principalities arose. Now by the 1870s the Bulgarians were the only Orthodox nation in the Balkans that had not achieved some measure of political independence through revolution. By the same token, however, they were the only nation that had not been divided by revolution. Thus the Greek revolution had divided the Greek nation between the Free State of Greece and the Ottoman Empire, and successive Serbian rebellions had divided the Serbs between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and the Free States of Serbia and Montenegro. Romania was a more-or-less independent state, but with many Romanians still outside her borders. Of the Balkan Christian nations in 1871, only the Bulgarians had no independent State or statelet. Almost all Bulgarians were all living within the borders of one State - the Ottoman empire.

     However, things were stirring in Bulgaria, too. Only the Bulgarians saw the main obstacle to their ambitions not in the Turks - some were even happy at the thought of a "Turkish tsar" (after all, the Bulgarians were partly of Turkic origin) - but in the neighbouring Christian nations. There was particular tension in Thrace and Macedonia, which from ancient times had been Greek[1], but where there were now more Bulgarians than Greeks. The question was: if Turkish power finally collapsed, which nation would take control in those provinces - the Greeks or the Bulgarians?

     Parallel to the movement for political independence was a movement for ecclesiastical independence. "In 1839," writes Christopher Walter, "the Ottoman government published the first of a series of edicts, granting liberty of conscience to its Christian subjects. The Bulgarians then petitioned the Phanar to appoint Bulgarian bishops and to authorize the celebration of the liturgy in Slavonic.[2] Progressively the Bulgarians became more insistent. When the Phanar so manipulated the election to the synod convoked in 1858 to study the Bulgarians' demands that none of them were accepted, the first symptoms of rupture became manifest. Greek bishops were expelled from districts where Bulgarians were in the majority. On Easter Sunday 1860, the Liturgy was celebrated in the church of St. Stephen in Constantinople in Slavonic, and the commemoration of the patriarch was omitted."[3]

     “There followed,” writes Eugene Pavlenko, “a de facto refusal of the Bulgarians to submit to the Patriarchate, which did not satisfy their demands for the right to elect their own bishops in their own dioceses and the granting to them the possibility of occupying the higher Church posts on an equal basis with the Greeks. The Patriarchate of Constantinople made various concessions: it issued Divine service books for the Bulgarian clergy in the Slavonic language, and appointed archimandrites from the Bulgarians. Later, under the influence of passions aroused on both sides, the demands of the Bulgarians intensified and flowed out into the desire to have their own separate exarchate. In 1867 the Constantinopolitan Patriarch Gregory VI proposed a project for the creation of a separate Bulgarian exarchate, but no meeting of minds was achieved on this project. It was hindered not only by the impossibility of precisely delineating dioceses with Greek and Bulgarian populations, but also by the gradually formed striving of the Bulgarians to create their own national Church, in which every Bulgarian, wherever he might be – in Bulgaria or in Asia Minor, would be in subjection only to the Bulgarian hierarchy. Such a striving was leading to a situation of ecclesiastical dual powers and to schism, but the Bulgarians were no longer upset by this. They wanted a schism, they were seeking it. They wanted separation not only from the Greeks, but also from the whole of Orthodoxy, since such a separation made them an independent people. ‘Look how willingly religion has been sacrificed for the same purely tribal principle, for the same national-cosmopolitan impulses!’ said K.N. Leontiev in this connection.[4]

     “In 1868 Patriarch Gregory VI of Constantinople attempted to settle the Greco-Bulgarian question by convening an Ecumenical Council, but without success. In these circumstances the Bulgarians decided to act through the sultan and submitted to him a petition concerning the re-establishment of the ecclesiastical independence which had been lost because of the abolition of the Trnovo Patriarchate. ‘Asking the Porte to establish their national independent hierarchy,’ wrote Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, ‘shows that although the Bulgarians have had sufficient time to think over what they are doing, they still have the stubborn desire without having acquired understanding. It is possible to establish a new independent hierarchy only with the blessing of a lawfully existing hierarchy.’[5] In reply to this request of the Bulgarians the Porte put forward two projects. According to point 3 of both projects, ‘in Constantinople, next to the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, a pre-eminent Orthodox Metropolitan of Bulgaria must be introduced…, to whom the supervision of the administration of the Bulgarian churches is to be entrusted and under whom there will be an assembly, that is, a kind of Synod, occupied with church affairs.’ In point 5 of one of these projects the Bulgarian Church is also called ‘a separate body’, while the aforementioned assembly is more than once called a Synod.

     “It goes without saying that Patriarch Gregory VI spoke out against such projects that transgress the canons of the Church. The ecclesiastical decrees which forbid such dual power situations are contained in:

(a)  The 8th canon of the First Ecumenical Council: ‘Let there not be two bishops in a city.’

(b)  The 35th canon of the Holy Apostles: ‘Let not a bishop dare to carry out ordinations outside the bounds of his diocese in cities and villages not subject to him’, which is confirmed and clarified by the 22nd canon of the Council of Antioch: ‘Let a bishop not go into another city that is not subject to him, nor into a settlement that does not belong to him, in order to ordain someone, and let him not establish priests or deacons in places subject to another bishop…’

(c)   The 34th canon of the Holy Apostles: ‘The bishops of each people should know the first among them, and recognise him as their head, and do nothing exceeding their authority without obtaining his permission: but each must do only that which touches his diocese and those places that belong to it.’

     “With regard to the words from the 34th canon of the Holy Apostles: ‘The bishops of each people’, there developed a polemic between the Bulgarians and Constantinople which was destined to have a long history. The Bulgarians considered that the words: ‘The bishops of each people’ meant the order of the joint administration of one and the same (geographical) district by several priestly hierarchies belonging to different nationalities. But this passage was interpreted in a different way by the Byzantine interpreters Zonaras, Balsamon and Aristene. Zonaras, in his explanation of the 34th Apostolic canon, says: ‘With this aim (the prevention of ecclesiastical disorder) the present canon commands that the first bishops of each district, that is, the hierarchs of the metropolia, should be recognised by all the bishops of that district as their head.’ Thus Zonaras considers the expression ‘of each people’ to be identical with the expression ‘of each district’. This interpretation is confirmed by the juxtaposition of the 34th Apostolic canon with the 9th canon of the Council of Antioch: ‘In each district it behoves the bishops to know the presiding bishop in the metropolia… in accordance with the rule of our fathers that has been in force since ancient times.’ Zonaras: ‘Although this canon does not coincide completely in its wording with the 34th canon of the Holy Apostles, nevertheless as far as the meaning is concerned it agrees with it in everything.’ Balsamon: ‘The content of this canon is explicated by the interpretation of the 34th Apostolic canon.’ Aristene: ‘This canon has exactly the same teaching as the 34th canon of the Holy Apostles.’ As we see, the authoritative Byzantine interpreters agree that by the expression ‘the bishops of each people’ ‘the bishops of each district’ must be understood, and so this canon agrees with all the remaining canons which forbid dual power in the Church.

     “The Patriarch’s refusal to make concessions elicited the irritation of the Turkish government, and in 1870 the sultan issued a firman, in which permission was granted to the Bulgarians to establish a separate exarchate with a specified number of dioceses. The administration of the exarchate was given to the Synod of the Bulgarian bishops under the presidency of the exarch, who had to commemorate the name of the Constantinopolitan Patriarch during the Divine service. The Synod was obliged to refer to the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate in connection with the most important matters of the faith, and after the election of its exarch it had to seek a confirmatory certificate from the Patriarch. The Bulgarians also had to receive chrism from the Patriarch. In accordance with the ecclesiastical canons (the 6th and 7th canons of the First Ecumenical Council and the 3rd canon of the Second Ecumenical Council), independent patriarchal sees and the Synods having equal honour to them have to be established in a conciliar fashion, and not on the orders of a secular power. Patriarch Gregory VI asked the Turkish government for permission to convene an Ecumenical Council to examine this question, but he was refused, and he resigned his see. In accordance with the decree of the Turkish government, the Bulgarian Assembly in Constantinople elected its exarch, who was presented to the sultan on April 4, 1872. However, the Constantinopolitan Patriarch, who was now Anthimus IV, did not agree not only to recognise, but also to receive the exarch, from whom he demanded written repentance for all that had been done. But the semi-independent existence of the exarchate no longer suited the Bulgarians, either. They longed for complete separation from the Greeks, which could only be achieved by means of an ecclesiastical schism. On May 11, 1872, after the Gospel during the Liturgy, which was celebrated in Constantinople by the exarch together with the other Bulgarian bishops and many clergy, an act signed by the Council of seven Bulgarian bishops was proclaimed, which declared that the Bulgarian Church was independent. On May 15, the Patriarchal Synod declared the Bulgarian exarch deprived of his rank and defrocked; the other Bulgarian bishops, together with all the clergy and laity in communion with them, were subjected to ecclesiastical punishments. A declaration was also made concerning the convening of a Local Council.

     “The feelings of the sides drawn in one way or another into the ecclesiastical conflict between the Greeks and the Bulgarians were described in detail on the eve of the Local Council of 1872 by K.N. Leontiev in his work, The Fruits of the National Movements. The Bulgarians affirmed that they would fight until ‘the last Bulgarian village, even including those in Asia Minor, is liberated from the ecclesiastical authority of the Patriarch’.[6] The Bulgarians did not fear a schism, they found a schism convenient for themselves. While the Turks, in their turn, considered that a quarrel between the Orthodox would be useful for their disintegrating state. The liberally inclined Russians sympathised with the ‘national-liberation’ movement of the Bulgarians… At the same time the Athenian Greeks were trying by all means to bring the matter to the convening of a Council and the ecclesiastical condemnation of the Bulgarians. Besides, they hoped that the Russian Holy Synod would finally come out openly in defence of the Bulgarians, after which they would be able to declare the Russians, too, to be schismatics, and having thereby separated themselves from the whole of Slavdom, tie their fate in with the peoples of Western Europe. The Athenian Greeks were drawn by the idea of a Great Hellas, the Bulgarians – by the idea of a Great Bulgaria. ‘We must baptise the sultan,’ they dreamed, ‘merge with the Turks, become established in Tsargrad and form a great Bulgar-Turkish state, which instead of aging Russia would take up the leadership of Slavdom.’[7] ‘Who has remained faithful to Orthodoxy?’ cried K.N. Leontiev. ‘It is only these same Greek bishops who are subjects of the Turks who have remained faithful to these foundations, to Orthodoxy and its ancient rules and spirit.’[8] He called these bishops Phanariots (after the Phanar, the quarter of Istanbul in which the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate was situated). They cursed Bulgarian phyletism at the Council of 1872, but did not allow a break also with Russia. The Russian Holy Synod, which at that time supported neither side, made no mistake meanwhile. The Constantinopolitan Patriarchate could not without transgressing the canons break with us, to which they were being urged by the Greeks of Hellas. But Constantinople did not wish to transgress the canons. Both in relation to the Bulgarians and in relation to Russia the Phanariots remained unshaken and faithful to the laws and traditions, in spite of all the difficulties caused by our [Russian] liberals’ flirting with the Bulgarians.

     “The Local Council of Constantinople opened on August 29, 1872. 32 hierarchs and all the Eastern Patriarchs except Jerusalem took part in it. On September 16, in its third session, the Constantinopolitan Council confirmed the decision according to which all the Bulgarian hierarchs with their clergy and laity were declared schismatics, and the whole of the Bulgarian Church was declared schismatic. In relation to phyletism the Council made the following decision: ‘…We have concluded that when the principle of racial division is juxtaposed with the teaching of the Gospel and the constant practice of the Church, it is not only foreign to it, but also completely opposed, to it.’ ‘We decree the following in the Holy Spirit: 1. We reject and condemn racial division, that is, racial differences, national quarrels and disagreements in the Church of Christ, as being contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers, on which the holy Church is established and which adorn human society and lead it to Divine piety. 2. In accordance with the holy canons, we proclaim that those who accept such division according to races and who dare to base on it hitherto unheard-of racial assemblies are foreign to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and are real schismatics.’”[9] 

     The Churches of Russia, Jerusalem, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania remained in communion with both the Greeks and the Bulgars.[10]Bishop Theophan the Recluse, who travelled extensively in the East in the 1850s and knew the Greeks as well as the Bulgars, was completely on the side of the Bulgars: “The ‘East’ does not understand the Bulgarian affair. For them the Bulgarians are guilty. But in fact they are not guilty. They could not of themselves separate from the patriarchate – and they did not separate, but asked [to separate]. But when they asked, the patriarchate was obliged to let them go. Did it not let them go? They constructed a departure for themselves in another way. How did we [the Russian Church] separate from the patriarchate [in the fifteenth century]?! We stopped sending [candidates to the metropolitanate] to them, and that was the end of it. That is what they [the Bulgars] have done. The patriarchate is guilty. But their Council which condemned the Bulgarians was the height of disorder. There it was the Hellene γένος that ruled.”

     For many Russians the conciliar condemnation of nationalism carried little weight because it came from the patriarchate that they considered the first sinner in this respect. Thus D.A. Khomiakov wrote. “Is not ‘pride in Orthodoxy’ nothing other than the cultural pride of the ancient Greek? And, of course, the true ‘phyletism’, formulated for the struggle against the Bulgarians, is precisely the characteristic of the Greeks themselves to a much greater extent than the Bulgarians, Serbs, Syrians and others. With them it is only a protest against the basic phyletism of the Greeks. The contemporary Greek considers himself the exclusive bearer of pure Orthodoxy..."[11]

     Professor Nicholas Glubokovsky wrote: "Greek nationalism historically merged with Orthodoxy and protected it by its own self-preservation, while it in its turn found a spiritual basis for its own distinctiveness. Orthodoxy and Hellenism were united in a close mutuality, which is why the first began to be qualified by the second. And Christian Hellenism realized and developed this union precisely in a nationalist spirit. The religious aspect was a factor in national strivings and was subjected to it, and it was not only the Phanariots [the inhabitants of Greek Constantinople] who made it serve pan-hellenic dreams. These dreams were entwined into the religious, Orthodox element and gave it its colouring, enduing the Byzantine patriarch with the status and rights of "ethnarch" for all the Christian peoples of the East, and revering him as the living and animated image of Christ (Matthew Blastaris, in his 14th century Syntagma, 8). As a result, the whole superiority of the spiritual-Christian element belonged to Hellenism, and could be apprehended by others only through Hellenism. In this respect the enlightened Grigorios Byzantios (or Byzantijsky, born in Constantinople, metropolitan of Chios from 1860, of Heraklion in 1888) categorically declared that 'the mission of Hellenism is divine and universal'. From this source come the age-old and unceasing claims of Hellenism to exclusive leadership in Orthodoxy, as its possessor and distributor. According to the words of the first reply (in May, 1576) to the Tubingen theologians of the Constantinopolitan patriarch Jeremiah II (+1595), who spoke in the capacity of a 'successor of Christ' (introduction), the Greek 'holy Church of God is the mother of the Churches, and, by the grace of God, she holds the first place in knowledge. She boasts without reproach in the purity of her apostolic and patristic decrees, and, while being new, is old in Orthodoxy, and is placed at the head', which is why 'every Christian church must celebrate the Liturgy exactly as she [the Greco-Constantinopolitan Church] does (chapter 13). Constantinople always displayed tendencies towards Church absolutism in Orthodoxy and was by no means well-disposed towards the development of autonomous national Churches, having difficulty in recognising them even in their hierarchical equality. Byzantine-Constantinopolitan Hellenism has done nothing to strengthen national Christian distinctiveness in the Eastern patriarchates and has defended its own governmental-hierarchical hegemony by all means, fighting against the national independence of Damascus (Antioch) and Jerusalem. At the end of the 16th century Constantinople by no means fully accepted the independence of the Russian Church and was not completely reconciled to Greek autocephaly (from the middle of the 19th century), while in relation to the Bulgarian Church they extended their nationalist intolerance to the extent of an ecclesiastical schism, declaring her (in 1872) in all her parts to be 'in schism'. It is a matter of great wonder that the champions of extreme nationalism in the ecclesiastical sphere should then (in 1872) have recognized national-ecclesiastical strivings to be impermissible in others and even labelled them 'phyletism', a new-fangled heresy[12]

     Nevertheless, ecclesiastical nationalism, or phyletism, was a real problem that would get worse in the coming decades leading to the first world war. So to that extent the Greek anathema on phyletism was legitimate and necessary. Moreover, on the strictly canonical issue, the Bulgarians were in the wrong.

     Perhaps the most balanced judgement came from the Philhellene Leontiev agreed. Although he supported the Greeks on the purely canonical issue, he thought that both sides were equally responsible for the schism: “Both you [Greeks] and the Bulgarians can equally be accused of phyletism, that is, of introducing ethnic interests into Church questions, and in the use of religion as a political weapon; but the difference lies in the fact that Bulgarian phyletism is defensive, while yours is offensive. Their phyletism seeks only to mark out the boundaries of their tribe; yours seeks to cross the boundaries of Hellenism…”[13]


May 11/24, 2015.

Saints Cyril and Methodius, Enlighteners of the Slavs.

[1]Moreover, the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council specifically mentions Thrace and Macedonia as coming within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Greeks were to use this canon in defence of their position.

[2]The Phanar's refusal led to two distinct movements for Bulgarian ecclesiastical independence: the Bulgarian Uniate Church, which was in communion with Rome, and the Bulgarian exarchate, later the Bulgarian patriarchate, which remained Orthodox. What is written here relates exclusively to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. (V.M.)

[3]Walter, "Raphael Popov, Bulgarian Uniate bishop: problems of uniatism and autocephaly", Sobornost', 6:1, 1984, p. 53.

[4] Leontiev, “Plody natsional’nykh dvizhenij” (The Fruits of the National Movements), in Vostok, Rossia i Slavianstvo (The East, Russia and Slavdom), Moscow, 1996, p. 559.

[5] Metropolitan Philaret, in Leontiev, “Pis’ma o vostochnykh delakh” (Letters on Eastern Matters), op. cit, p. 360.

[6] Leontiev, “Plody natsional’nykh dvizhenij”, op. cit., p. 558.

[7] Leontiev, “Plody natsional’nykh dvizhenij”, op. cit., p. 559.

[8] Leontiev, “Plody natsional’nykh dvizhenij”, op. cit., p. 560. As he wrote in another place: “They wanted to have not, an administrative, or topographical exarchate within definite boundaries, but a tribal [ethnic] exarchate, a ‘phyletic’ exarchate as the Greek clergy put it at the council of 1872. The Ecumenical Patriarch could have given them an administrative exarchate or even a patriarchy, and he would have been forced to do that later by force of circumstances… but the Bulgarians wanted a ‘tribal’ exarchate, that is, they wanted all Bulgarians, wherever they lived, to depend directly and in all respects on their national clergy. Of course, the Patriarch did not even have the right to bow to their wishes in this form. The Bulgarians then separated in a self-willed manner; while the council declared them to be… ‘schismatics’…” (“Dopolnenie k dvum stat’iam o panslavizme” (Supplement to Two Articles on Pan-Slavism), op. cit., p. 81.)

     And again: “In the ecclesiastical question the Bulgarians and the Greeks were equally cunning and wrong according to conscience. The difference lay in the fact that canonically, formally, in the sense precisely of abstract principles of tradition, the Greeks were more right” (“Khram i Tserkov’” (Temple and Church), op. cit., p. 165). (V.M.)

[9] Pavlenko, “The Heresy of Phyletism: History and the Present”, Vertograd-Inform, (English edition), September, 1999. The full report of the special commission can be found in Hildo Boas and Jim Forest, For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book, Syndesmos, 1999; in “The Heresy of Racism”, In Communion, Fall, 2000, pp. 16-18.

[10] See K. Dinkov, Istoria na B'lgarskata Ts'rkva (A History of the Bulgarian Church), Vratsa, 1953, pp. 80-96; D. Kosev, "Bor'ba za samostoyatel'na natsionalna tserkva" (The Struggle for an Independent National Church), in Istoria na B'lgaria (A History of Bulgaria), Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1987, vol. 6, pp. 124-188 (in Bulgarian); Fr. German Ivanov-Trinadtsaty, "Novij podkhod k greko-bolgarskomu raskolu 1872 goda" (A New Approach to the Greco-Bulgarian Schism), Russkoe Vozrozhdenie (Russian Regeneration), 1987 (I), pp. 193-200.

[11] Khomiakov, Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narodnost’ (Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality), Minsk: Belaruskaya Gramata, 1997, p. 19.

[12] Glubokovsky, "Pravoslavie po ego sushchestvu" (Orthodoxy in its essence), in Tserkov' i Vremia (The Church and Time), 1991, pp. 5-6.

[13] Leontiev, “Panslavism i Greki” (Pan-Slavism and the Greeks), op. cit., p. 46.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company