The “Bulgarian Question” and the 1872 Council of Constantinople, Part 2

Yesterday, I ran the first of six articles on the so-called “Bulgarian Question,” a controversy that rocked the Orthodox world in the early 1870s and ultimately led to the 1872 Council of Constantinople, which condemned the heresy of “phyletism.” Search the Internet — both Google and the various subscriber-only databases of academic journals — and you’ll find precious little of substance on the Council. I recently stumbled onto a series of contemporaneous accounts published in the Methodist Quarterly Review, and I’m reprinting those accounts here.

I know I said that I’d run Part 2 next week, but I’ve got this ready to go now, so why wait? This latest installment appeared in the April 1871 issue of the Methodist Quarterly Review — so, nine months after the article I printed yesterday.


The Bulgarian Church Question, to the earlier history and importance of which we have referred in former numbers of the “Quarterly Review” led in the year 1870 to very important developments. The demand of the Bulgarians to have Bishops of their own nationality, and a national Church organization like the Roumanians and the Servians, was, in the main, granted by the imperial firman of March 10. The substance of the eleven paragraphs is as follows:

  • Article I. provides for the establishment of a separate Church administration for the Bulgarians, which shall be called the Exarchate of the Bulgarians.
  • Article II. The chief of the Bulgarian Metropolitans receives the title of Exarch, and presides over the Bulgarian Synod.
  • Article III. The Exarch, as well as the Bishops, shall be elected in accordance with the regulations hitherto observed, the election of the Exarch to be confirmed by the oecumenical Patriarchs.
  • Article IV. The Exarch receives his appointment by the Sublime Porte previous to his consecration, and is bound to say prayer for the Patriarch whenever he holds divine service.
  • Article V. stipulates the formalities to be observed in supplicating for the appointment (installation) by the Sublime Porte.
  • Article VI. In all matters of a spiritual nature the Exarch has to consult with the Patriarch.
  • Article VII. The new Bulgarian Church, like the Churches of Roumania, Greece, and Servia, obtains the holy oil (chrisma) from the Patriarchate.
  • Article VIII. The authority of a Bishop does not extend beyond his diocese.
  • Article IX. The Bulgarian Church and the bishopric (Metochion) in the Phanar are subject to the Exarch, who may temporarily reside in the Metochion. During this temporary residence he must observe the same rules and regulations which have been established for the Patriarch of Jerusalem during his residence in the Phanar.
  • Article X. The Bulgarian Exarchate comprises fourteen dioceses: Rustchuk, Silistria, Schumia, Tirnovo, Sophia, Widdin, Nisch, Slivno, Veles, Samakovo, Kustendie, Vratza, Lofdja, and Pirut. One half of the cities of Varna, Anchialu, Mesembria, Liyeboli, and of twenty villages on the Black Sea, are reserved for the Greeks. Philippople has been divided into two equal parts, one of which, together with the suburbs, is retained by the Greeks, while the other half, and the quarter of Panaghia, belongs to the Bulgarians. Whenever proof is adduced that two thirds of the inhabitants of a diocese are Bulgarians, such diocese shall be transferred to the Exarchate.
  • Article XI. All Bulgarian monasteries which are under the Patriarchate at the present time shall remain so in the future.

The Greeks of Constantinople where indignant at this firman, because they were well aware that its execution would put an end to the subordinate position in which they have thus far kept the Bulgarians. They demanded that the Patriarch should either reject it or resign. The Synod which was convened by the Patriarch in April declared that the firman was in conflict with the canons of the Church, and that an Ecumenical Council should be summoned to decide the question. The Patriarch accordingly notified the Turkish government that he could not accept the firman, and that, therefore, he renewed his petition for the convocation of an Ecumenical Council. The Bulgarian committee, on the other hand, issued a circular in which the solution of the question by the firman was declared to be entirely satisfactory, and corresponding with their just demands. They pointed out that the principal demand of the orthodox Bulgarians had been that their Churches and bishoprics be intrusted to a clergy familiar with the Bulgarian language, and that they did not understand how the Patriarchate could designate as unevangelical so legitimate a desire. The Patriarch, in a letter to the Grand Vizier, declared that he could retain his office only if the government granted the convocation of the Ecumenical Council. The endeavor of Ali Pasha to induce the Patriarch to desist from his demand proved of no avail. The twelve Bishops constituting the Synod of Constantinople sent a synodic letter to the Porte, in which they implore the government to settle the Bulgarian Church question on the basis proposed by the Patriarch in 1869. The government now yielded. Ali Pasha invited the Patriarch to send to the government a programme of the question to be discussed by the Ecumenical Synod. To this the Patriarch replied as follows:

We had the honor of receiving the rescript which your highness has condescended to forward to us, as a reply to our letter and the Maybata of the Synod of Metropolitans. We perceive that we shall be authorized to convene the Ecumenical Council, to which will appertain the final solution of the Bulgarian question by canonical decision. Your highness expresses the desire to know beforehand the objects and the limits of the deliberations of the Council, and invites us to submit a programme of the same. We have the honor of informing you that the Ecumenical Council, for whose convocation we requested the authorization of the imperial government, will have to investigate and to adjust the controversy which has arisen between the Patriarchate and the Bulgarians. Your highness is aware that said controversy resulted partly from the circumstance that the Bulgarians did not consider satisfactory the concessions which we granted them in regard to the administration of the Church, partly from the fact that the Bulgarians demand something which is in direct opposition to the spirit of our faith and to the commands of the holy canons, although they pretend that their proposals are not at all in contradiction to the holy laws. Thus the labors of the Council, which will not touch on any secular question, will be strictly limited to deliberations on the Bulgarian question; the demands of the Bulgarians, as well as the concessions made by the Patriarchate, will be minutely and impartially scrutinized, upon which the Council will come to a decision in accordance with the spirit of the canons, from which there can be no appeal.

Done and given at our Patriarchal residence on November 16, 1870.


And with that, the Methodist Quarterly Review article ends.

The biggest bombshell — the thing that really got the Ecumenical Patriarchate riled — seems to be Article X, which provided that, if two-thirds of the inhabitants of a diocese are ethnically Bulgarian, the diocese would be transferred from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Bulgarian Church. If THAT is what we’re calling “phyletism,” then I can see why Constantinople would be upset. You can’t have a bishop’s territory taken away from him simply by virtue of the ethnic makeup of that territory.

Also, while such things have been common throughout history, it’s pretty jarring to see church policy so explicitly dictated by a non-Orthodox, secular government. I mean, I realize that Bulgarian Orthodox officials probably drafted the “firman,” but the thing was issued by the Turkish government, and it’s this document that lays out the structure of an entirely new (purported) Local Church.

The part about the Bulgarian Exarch living in Constantinople sounds pretty weird, too, but in those days it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. The article alludes to the Patriarch of Jerusalem doing the same thing, and other Patriarchs lived in Constantinople at various times throughout history.

Anyway, we’ll run the next article on this fascinating situation in the very near future. Thanks for reading.

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