The “Bulgarian Question” and the 1872 Council of Constantinople, Part 3

In case you haven’t been following along, this is Part 3 in a 6-part series of articles we began last week, covering the 1872 Council of Constantinople, which famously condemned “phyletism.” All of these articles were published in the Methodist Quarterly Review, within months of the events they discuss.

This installment was published in the Methodist Quarterly Review in April 1872, and reports on the events that took place in 1871.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I’m suddenly posting all this stuff about the 1872 Council of Constantinople: this Sunday, December 9, I will be a guest on Kevin Allen’s “Ancient Faith Today” show, on Ancient Faith Radio. The live broadcast begins at 5 PM Pacific / 6 Mountain / 7 Central / 8 Eastern. The topic is “ethnocentrism.” If you can listen live, and want to call in with a question, I’d love to hear from you. You can also download the show afterward and listen to it whenever you want. (And while you can’t call in after the fact, I’m always happy to answer questions!) Anyway – Sunday night. Oh, and here’s the link:


The Bulgarian Church question continued to agitate the Greek Church of Turkey throughout the year 1871. The committee of six Bulgarian bishops, which, in accordance with the firman of February 26, 1870, met in Constantinople, in union with prominent Bulgarian notables of the Turkish Senate, in order to prepare a draft for the organization of an autonomous Bulgarian exarchate, (the main points of this draft were given in the Methodist Quarterly Review, 1871, p. 319,) drew up at the same time an act for the election, by the committees of clerical and lay deputies of a national assembly, to meet in Constantinople in April, 1871, for the rectification of the Church statutes.

An active discussion took place in this assembly between those who advocated the application of the regulations of the old Greek Church to the new exarchate, and a progressive party which favored the introduction of the presbyterial system. The principal journal of “Young Bulgaria,” under the leadership of the “Makedonia” of Slavejkov, supported the party of progress. After long and animated debates the Church assembly declared in favor of the participation of the laity in the administration of the affairs of the Church, the establishment of the salaries of the higher and lower clergy, and the exclusive application of all surplus of ecclesiastical taxes to the elevation of popular instruction and the establishment of higher schools. It was decided also, by a vote of 28 to 15, that the exarch should be appointed, not for life, but for a term of five years. The place where he should reside was left an open question, almost equally strong reasons being presented in favor of his residence at Constantinople and in one of the larger towns near the center of the exarchate. The discussion of the draft of the Church Constitution was finished on May 26, and it was presented to Ali Pasha by three deputies of the assembly — Hadshi Ivantshov, Pentchov Gyordaki, and Dr. Tchomakov.

The Greek Patriarch, supported by the diplomatic influence of Russia, came again forward in opposition to the Sultan’s well-intentioned measures for his Bulgarian subjects, with the demand that the Bulgarian Greek Church conflict should not be regarded as an administrative question, but as one of canon law, and that it should be left to the exclusive decision of an ecumenical council. He protested against all the acts of the Bulgarian National Assembly as uncanonical and unconstitutional. In the contemplated ecumenical council the patriarchate would be sure of a majority. The few Bulgarian bishops would be easily silenced by the numerous Hellenic bishops of the Greek Churches of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Cyprus, and the continued Hellenization of the Bulgarian people would even receive the canonical approbation of the council, against which, as the Patriarch had said in a letter (November 4, 1870) to Ali Pasha, there is no appeal.

In the meantime, however, the Patriarch Gregory VI. had laid himself open to censure by his undissembled animosity against the Slavic people and his opposition to the commands of the Turkish Governments. Abandoned by the Governments of Russia and Servia, he had no alternative but to accept the suggestion of Ali Pasha, and resign the patriarchate. Antim Kutalianus succeeded him on the 18th of September. Being of a more conciliatory disposition than his predecessor, he sought, as early as October, to engage in negotiations with influential Bulgarians for a compromise of difficulties. These negotiations have been of a more conciliatory character, but from what has transpired respecting them they do not seem likely to allay the long-increasing division in the Church. Antim insists upon giving the patriarchate control of the appointment of the Bulgarian exarch, upon the levy of a tax of a piaster upon each Bulgarian household, and upon the repeal of the tenth section of the Sultan’s firman, which permits districts with a mixed population of Greek and Bulgarians to be attached to the Bulgarian exarchate upon the vote of the majority. The opposition of the patriarchate to this paragraph is easily explained, since it threatens it with a serious loss of moral and material power — a loss which it is not well able to bear since the Servian and Roumanian Churches have been cut off from their dependence upon it. On the other hand, it is natural that the Bulgarians should insist upon its being retained, as its operation will be to promote the continual growth of their exarchate in territory and power.

Members of the Bulgarian National Assembly, among them the deputies from Adrianople, Rustchuk, etc., and the Bulgarian community at Constantinople, have protested earnestly against further continuance of the negotiations with the Patriarch on this basis, to which he adheres obstinately. The decision on the whole subject, however, rests solely with the Porte.

A new conflict between the Bulgarians and the Patriarchate arose when, at the festival of Epiphany, 1872, three Bulgarian bishops, in order to show their independence, celebrated mass, in spite of the prohibition of the Patriarch, in the Bulgarian Church of Constantinople. The patriarch on the next day made a full report of the occurrence to the Turkish Government, which exiled the three Bishops. He also called a meeting of the great National Council, to which he explained the facts in the case and read the report. The Council resolved to publish a proclamation to the nation and to distribute it all over the country.

The Bulgarians were not agreed as to the best course to be now pursued. The Young Bulgarians insisted on the immediate rupture of all negotiations with the patriarchate, and applied to the Porte for the immediate appointment of a Bulgarian exarch. With this request the Porte, however, declined to comply. The more moderate party among the Bulgarians lamented the acts of the three bishops, and demanded the continuation of the negotiations with the patriarchate.

Soon, however, the Turkish Government was prevailed upon to take, once more, sides with the Bulgarians. In February, 1872, a decree of the Grand Vizier proclaimed that the Turkish Government, in consideration of the efforts of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to bring on splits between the Greek and the Bulgarian population, which the Porte had endeavored to prevent, would not establish the Bulgarian exarchate in accordance with the imperial firman. The responsibility for this measure would wholly rest with the patriarchate by which it had been provoked. It is also announced that a new Bulgarian Church Congress will assemble in Constantinople to carry out the provisions of the imperial firman.

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