Early stages of the Bulgarian schism from Constantinople

We just finished running a series of six articles on the 1872 Council of Constantinople, published contemporaneously in the Methodist Quarterly Review. The following article is from about a decade earlier, and describes the early stages of the Bulgarian split from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This piece is from an American journal called The Independent, March 28, 1861:


Separation of the Bulgarians from the Greek Church – The Hopes of the Protestant and the Roman Missionaries – Establishment of a United Bulgarian Church.

An actual separation from the Greek Church has already been commenced on the part of the Bulgarians, a tribe which counts a population of about four millions, living mostly  in the province of Bulgaria Proper and in the northern part of the provinces of Macedonia and Thrace, and in which of late a special interest has been awakened in America by reports of the missionaries of the American Board and of the Methodist Episcopal Church, who have been laboring among them, if not with great actual results, at least with good prospects for the future. The Bulgarians have been engaged for several years in a struggle against the heads of the Greek Church, for the recovery of their national ecclesiastical rights, which only needs to be more generally known in order to enlist the liveliest sympathy of all friends of religious liberty.

The Bulgarian Church was free from any dependence on the Patriarch of Constantinople up to the year 1767, when, by the intrigues of the then Patriarch Samuel, backed by the Greek archons, the Turkish Government was induced to abolish the Bulgarian archiepiscopal see of Ochrida [sic], and to place all the Bulgarian people under his jurisdiction. From that time, the Greek prelates have imposed on the Bulgarians the same odious yoke which the Church of Rome has so successfully laid on all the churches of Western Europe. They have introduced into their churches the use of a language which the people do not understand, and have sent them bishops who have always shown themselves hostile to its cultivation in church and school.

Since the issue of the Hatti-Houmayoun in 1856, the Bulgarians have urgently demanded the restoration of their ancient rights. There seems to be no difference of opinion among them on this point; bishops, priests, and laity appear to be perfectly unanimous, and the national movement, in this respect, is as strong and sound as the one which has been recently so successful in Italy. They demand the erection of an independent Bulgarian patriarchal see, and the appointment of only Bulgarian bishops, and in support of their demand they instance the fact that the Greeks themselves have four patriarchal sees, viz., those of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch, and one archiepiscopal see, (that of Cyprus,) all independent of each other. The justness of these claims becomes the more apparent, if it is remembered that the Bulgarians are by far more numerous in European Turkey than the Greeks.

Nevertheless, the higher Greek clergy have made to such reasonable demands the most obstinate and defying resistance. Not only did they turn a deaf ear to all the appeals for the restoration of the Bulgarian language at Divine service, but when the new ecclesiastical constitution was being framed, they treated the Bulgarians with utter neglect, and almost ignored their existence. The Bulgarians, therefore, very properly refused to be represented in the assembly electing a new Patriarch of Constantinople, either by laymen or ecclesiastics, saying that it was a matter in which they had no concern, as they would no longer acknowledge the Patriarch as their spiritual head.

The Turkish Government has unfortunately sided in this question with the Greek clergy, and not with the Bulgarians. It has believed the insinuation that the Bulgarian movement has been set on foot by agents of the Russian Government, and that the latter was using the ecclesiastical agitation as a means for effecting a closer union of all the Sclavonic [sic] tribes of Russia among themselves, and with Russia. When thus all the attempts of the Bulgarian churches had failed, a part of the people have at length listened to the cunning advice which the Roman Catholic missionaries, aided by French diplomacy, have given them. The Roman priests suggested to the leading men among the Bulgarians that, by only acknowledging the Pope as the Supreme Bishop of the Church, they might obtain their independence of the Patriarch of Constantinople, or constitute themselves after the example of the United Greeks, United Armenians, United Copts, the Chaldeans (i.e., United Nestorians,) and the Catholic Syrians, (United Jacobites,) as an Independent National Bulgarian Church, and thus be at once put in possession of all their ancient rights, including the use of the Bulgarian language at divine service. The leaders of the movement seem, at first, to have used this expedient as a means of forcing the Greek clergy into compliance with their wishes; and a memorial, holding out the probability of a union of the entire people with Rome, if the national wishes were not gratified, was very numerously signed. It was on the strength of this memorial that, a few months ago, the Roman Catholic papers of Europe and this country prematurely announced that the union had been actually consummated.

This, as yet, is far from being the case. But a beginning has been made. A correspondence from Constantinople in the Presse of Paris, gives the following description of it: “It was on Sunday morning, (Dec. 30th,) immediately preceding high mass, that the formal act of abjuration was received. The national deputation numbered 200, and consisted of two archimandrites, three priests, and twenty esness, (chief magistrates,) who bore an address containing signatures, and were supported by a body of civic officers. They were received by Monsignor Brunoni on the part of the Pope, and Monsignor Hassoun, the Primate of the United Armenians. The following transaction then took place between Mr. Ivanoff, the spokesman to the party, and Mgr. Brunoni: ‘We petition to be admitted into union with the Church of Rome.’ ‘Do ye yield to the dogma of the said  Church, that she alone is one and true?’ ‘We so believe it.’ ‘Are ye prepared to sign this declaration as an act of your faith?’ ‘We are so prepared, and we ask you to present the same as our united deed to the head of the Church — the Pope, at Rome. We would also add that we wish to retain our liturgy.’ Hereupon the Bulgarian deputies annexed their names to an official document — the clergy taking precedency in the signing. After this, the Archimandrite Macariog stood forth and pronounced an address in the Bulgarian tongue, which was full of fire. The oath of the Gospels was next received, and then the Armenian Archbishop pontificated. On the conclusion of the high mass the kiss of brotherhood was exchanged between the members of both bodies, clerical and lay, beginning with the Primate as he descended from the altar.”

The Monde of Paris reports some additional details. According to its correspondent, the Bulgarians of Constantinople on the same day issued a manifesto to the entire nation, announcing that December 30th would henceforth be celebrated as the greatest national festival. The Grand Vizier is said to have declared on the next day to a Bulgarian deputation that the Government would lay no obstacles to this new movement. The United Bulgarians have purchased a building which is to serve as a school and the dwelling of their future Patriarch.

The Roman Catholic papers are of course again very sanguine, and expect that the majority of the nation will speedily join the union. Other reports, however, ill accord with such expectations. It is maintained that all the chief Bulgarians in Constantinople, including several bishops and priests, have published a protest against the seceders, declaring them to be men of no influence or character, and unworthy to lead the Bulgarian nation. They have, moreover, appealed to the Constantinople branch of the Evangelical Alliance for aiding them in securing the recognition of their ecclesiastical independence, and the Evangelical Alliance have called the attention of the Protestant Embassadors [sic] at Constantinople, viz., those of Great Britain, United States, Prussia, Denmark, Holland, and Sweden, to the interesting movement, and begged them to exert their friendly influence in favor of the just demands of the Bulgarians. The movement thus has entered upon a new stage, and greatly increases in interest and importance.


Again, this is from 1861 — more than a decade before the Council of Constantinople. Some key takeaways, for me:

  • I don’t know a lot about Bulgarian Church history, but if in fact the Bulgarians more or less governed themselves until the 1760s, and only after that were subjected to ecclesiastical control by the Greeks, then it makes a lot of sense that they would resent that control.
  • It’s particularly notable that the Bulgarians and other Slavs outnumbered the Greeks in the European part of Turkey. Yes, there were a lot of Greeks in Asia Minor, but from the Bulgarians’ perspective, Constantinople was an elite minority that was imposing its own Greek language and practices in a region that was mostly Slavic.
  • The Bulgarians were hardly alone in their predicament. Over in Syria, the Arab Orthodox were governed by a Greek hierarchy — this was referred to as the “Greek captivity” of Antioch. Same thing in Jerusalem. I don’t know about the ethnic makeup of the Patriarchate of Alexandria (I suspect it was largely Greek), but still, that’s two ancient Arab patriarchates that were governed by, essentially, puppets of Constantinople. And St. Raphael, writing against this a generation later, got kicked out of the Patriarchate of Antioch for his views.

Soon, I’ll try to write something to tie this whole Bulgaria / 1872 Council / phyletism thing together, at least preliminarily. To be honest, I’m still trying to make sense of it all myself, but it does seem to me that what the Bulgarians were guilty of wasn’t necessarily “phyletism” so much as it was the desire to have bishops from their own region, familiar to and with their own people, and friendly to their indigenous culture. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what most Orthodox people want, everywhere, and in every age. That’s not to justify what the Bulgarians did, which seems to be pretty clearly uncanonical. But there’s a difference between uncanonical, schismatic acts and heresy.

Oh, and one final thing: 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,” and among other things, I’ll be talking about the 1872 Council that condemned phyletism. The show begins at 5 PM Pacific / 6 Mountain / 7 Central / 8 Eastern, and you can listen live at this link: http://ancientfaith.com/ancientfaithtoday. 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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