The “Bulgarian Question” and the 1872 Council of Constantinople, Part 4

This article is the fourth in a six-part series on the 1872 Council of Constantinople, and this particular report covers the Council itself. It contains what is, to the best of my knowledge, the only complete English translation of the decree of the Council. From the Methodist Quarterly Review, January 1873.


The rupture between the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople and the Bulgarian nation (see “Methodist Quarterly Review,” 1872, p. 329) became complete by the election, in March, 1872, of Bishop Anthim as Exarch, or head of the national Bulgarian Church. The Exarch at once made efforts to bring about an understanding with the Patriarch. The latter replied that he would give a respite of forty days, after the lapse of which he must return to the orthodox Church, and during which he must abstain from exercising any episcopal function, under penalty of canonical law.

The Exarch indeed abstained from all ecclesiastical functions, although the Passover of the Greek Church took place within this period. But in the latter part of May the Exarch yielded to the pressure brought upon him by the leaders of the national Bulgarian party, and solemnly released the three Bulgarian bishops who, in January, 1872, had been excommunicated by the Patriarch, from the excommunication. This induced the Patriarch to convoke a meeting of his synod and of many prominent laymen, which declared the negotiations with the Bulgarians to be at an end, and Anthim to have incurred the canonical censures. On the other side, the Exarch, on May 24, left out in the liturgy the prescribed mention of the Patriarch, and substituted for it the words “the orthodox episcopate,” which immediately called forth the reading of a pastoral letter by the Patriarch, excommunicating Anthim and pronouncing the great anathema against the three Bulgarian bishops.

Notwithstanding these measures, the Bulgarian Church consolidated itself more and more. The Exarch soon consecrated a new bishop, and at Wodina, in Macedonia, the Bulgarians expelled the Greek bishop, and declared that, in accordance with Article X of the firman establishing the Bulgarian exarchate, (by which article it is provided that two thirds of the inhabitants of a diocese have the power of demanding the connection of the diocese with the exarchate,) they would join the Bulgarian Church.

On September 10 the “Great Synod” of the Church met in Constantinople. All the Patriarchs and twenty-five archbishops and bishops were present. The Synod soon declared “phyletism,” that is, the distinction of races and nationalities within the Church of God, as contrary to the doctrine of the Gospel and of the Fathers, and excluded six Bulgarian bishops and all connected with the exarchate from the Church. All the bishops signed the decree except the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who left the Synod before its close, and was therefor insulted by the Greek population of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, who received him with shouts of “Traitor!” “Muscovite!” The following is a translation of the decree of the Synod, which will remain an important document in the annals of the Greek Church:

Decree of the Holy and Grand Council, assembled at Constantinople in the month of September, in the year of grace 1872.

The Apostle Paul has commanded us to take heed unto ourselves and to all the flock over the [sic] which the Holy Ghost hath made us overseers, to govern the Church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood; and has at the same time predicted that grievous wolves shall enter among us, not sparing the flock, and that of our own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them; and he has warned us to beware of such. We have learned with astonishment and pain that such men have lately appeared among the Bulgarian people within the jurisdiction of the Holy Ecumenical Throne. They have dared to introduce into the Church the idea of phyletism, or the national Church, which is of the temporal life, and have established, in contempt of the sacred canon, an unauthorized and unprecedented Church assembly, based upon the principle of the difference of races. Being inspired in accordance with our duty, by zeal for God and the wish to protect the pious Bulgarian people against the spread of this evil, we have met in the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Having first besought from the depths of our hearts the grace of the Father of light, and consulted the Gospel of Christ, in which all treasures of wisdom are hidden, and having examined the principles of phyletism with reference to the precepts of the Gospel and the temporal constitution of the Church of God, we have found it not only foreign, but in enmity to them, and have perceived that the unlawful acts committed by the aforesaid unauthorized phyletismal assembly, as they were severally recited to us, are one and all condemned.

Therefore, in view of the sacred canons, whose rulings are hereby confirmed in their whole compass; in view of the teachings of the apostles, through whom the Holy Ghost has spoken; in view of the decrees of the seven Ecumenical Councils, and of all the local councils; in view of the definitions of the Fathers of the Church, we ordain as follows:

Art. 1. We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.

Art. 2. We declare the adherents of phyletism, who have had the boldness to set up an unlawful, unprecedented Church assembly upon such a principle, to be foreign and absolutely schismatic to the only holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. There are and remain, therefore, schismatic and foreign to the Orthodox Church the following lawless men whoh have of their own free will separated themselves from it, namely, Hilarion, ex-Bishop of Makariopolis; Panaretes, ex-Metropolitan of Philippopolis; Hilarion, ex-Bishop of Sostra; Anthimos, ex-Metropolitan of Widdin; Dorothea, ex-Metropolitan of Sophia; Partheonius, ex-Metropolitan of Nyssava; Gennadius, ex-Metropolitan of Melissa, before deposed and excommunicated; together with all who have been ordained by them to be archbishops, priests, and deacons; all persons, spiritual and worldly, who are in communion with them; all who act in co-operation with them; and all who accept as lawful and canonical their unholy blessings and ceremonies of worship.

While we pronounce this synodal decision, we pray to the God of mercy, our Lord Jesus Christ, the head and founder of our faith, that he will preserve his holy Church from all dangerous new doctrines, and that he will keep it pure, spotless, and fast, on the foundations of the apostles and the prophets. We pray him to grant the grace of repentance to those who have separated themselves from her, and have founded their unauthorized Church assembly upon the principle of phyletism, so that they may some day nullify their acts, and return to the only holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, in order with all the orthodox to praise God, who came upon the earth to bring peace and good-will to all men. He it is whom we shall honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, to the end of time. Amen.

The decree is signed by his Grace the Ecumenical Patriarch and the three former Patriarchs, the Pontiff and Patriarch of Alexandria, the Patriarch of Antioch, the Archbishop of Cyprus, and by twenty-five metropolitans and bishops.


I’ll be a guest on Kevin Allen’s live call-in show “Ancient Faith Today,” on Ancient Faith Radio, this Sunday, December 9. The topic is “ethnocentrism.” The show begins at 5 PM Pacific / 6 Mountain / 7 Central / 8 Eastern, and you can listen live at this link: You can also download the show after it’s finished and listen later. If you do listen live, feel free to call in with a question. I’d love to hear from some of our readers!

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