The Longest Schism in Modern Orthodoxy: Bulgarian Autocephaly & Ethnophyletism

Fr Neofit Bozveli

In 1767, the Ottoman Empire had suppressed the Patriarchate of Ohrid and subordinated its Bulgarian Orthodox people to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Beginning in the early 1830s, the Bulgarian Orthodox subjects of the Empire began agitating for the restoration of their own church. In 1838, Sultan Mahmud II visited the Bulgarian provinces of the Empire and the people petitioned him for Bulgarian-speaking bishops. The same year, the Greek speaking Metropolitan of Tarnovo (a small city in north central Bulgaria) died, and the people pushed for one of their own, Fr Neofit Bozveli, to succeed him. The Ecumenical Patriarchate rejected this and imposed another Greek speaker ; Bozveli responded by moving to Constantinople and giving speeches to the Bulgarians in the city, calling for the creation of a Bulgarian parish in the capital city itself.

In 1841, Bozveli was arrested in Constantinople and exiled to Mount Athos. The reason for this punishment was Bozveli’s refusal to accept the appointment of an ethnically Greek bishop to the see of Tarnovo – a see to which Bozveli himself had been nominated by the local Bulgarians, only to be rejected by Constantinople.

In 1848, the Ecumenical Patriarchate finally agreed to the construction of a Bulgarian church and school in Constantinople. It was consecrated the following year, and, for the time being, remained subordinate to the Ecumenical Patriarch.

In 1851, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, facing a growing call from the Bulgarian people for bishops of their own nationality, decided instead to appoint a Serb, Stefan Kovacevic, as a bishop for the Bulgarians. This satisfied neither the Bulgarians nor the Greeks, and Stefan was ultimately removed from his see.

Two years later, the Crimean War broke out. Thousands of Bulgarians, along with Greeks, Serbs, and Romanians living in the Ottoman Empire, volunteered to fight on the side of Russia, forming their own Orthodox legion. As the conflict raged Russia pulled its embassy out of Constantinople, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate came under the increasing influence of the British Empire. When the war ended and the Russians resumed diplomatic relations with the Ottomans, their relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate had cooled. From now on, Russia would no longer support the Greek hierarchy, instead spending its diplomatic capital to benefit the laity of the Patriarchate. This would come to include a sympathy toward the Bulgarians’ desire for their own church. In 1857, the Russian Church appointed St Theophan the Recluse – then a hieromonk and not yet a recluse – to serve as the Russian church’s representative in Constantinople. Theophan sympathized with the Bulgarian cause, taking the position that they should be allowed to have their own hierarchy and clergy and worship in Slavonic rather than Greek.

One of the results of the Crimean War was that the Sultan issued a reform firman (edict) known as the Hatt-i Humayun, which had a number of implications for the religious minorities in the Empire. The firman led to the establishment of the “National Assembly,” a mixed council of bishops, clergy, and laity for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The National Assembly first met in 1858, and it included four Bulgarian delegates, who pressed for the election of metropolitans by the Bulgarian laity. While this was refused, the Ecumenical Patriarchate did finally agree to appoint a native Bulgarian bishop – Hilarion Mihaylovski, titular Metropolitan of Makariopolis, who was one of the leading figures in the movement for Bulgarian autocephaly. The following year, the Patriarchate blessed the use of Slavonic, rather than Greek, in some of the Bulgarian churches.

Metropolitan Hilarion of Makariopolis

This wasn’t enough. In February 1860, the Bulgarian delegates to the National Assembly demanded the restoration of the patriarchates of Tarnovo and Ohrid. The Ecumenical Patriarchate ignored these demands. On Pascha, the Bulgarian Metropolitan Hilarion of Makariopolis did not commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch during the Divine Liturgy. Instead, he commemorated the Sultan and “all Orthodox metropolitan bishops.” Consequently, the Patriarchate exiled Hilarion to Mount Athos, along with the bishops who supported him. The same month, the Slavic residence of Koprulu expelled their new Greek metropolitan from the diocese. In May, thirty different Bulgarian parishes omitted the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch from commemoration in the Divine Liturgy.

The conflict between the Bulgarian Orthodox and the Ecumenical Patriarchate only intensified over the coming months, as movements emerged among the laity, resisting the rule of the Phanar. In some cities, Greek liturgical books were destroyed in protests. Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril VII had lost control of the situation and was forced to resign in July. Then in September, thirty-threeBulgarian guilds from across the Empire petitioned the Sultan, declaring that they would no longer recognize the Ecumenical Patriarch as their leader. In October, Joachim II was elected Ecumenical Patriarch by the newly-instituted mixed assembly of the Patriarchate. This caused further discontent among the Bulgarians, who were not proportionally represented among the electors.

A few months later, in February 1861, the Sultan, attempting to quell the dissent among his Bulgarians subjects, issued a decree requesting that the Ecumenical Patriarchate appoint Bulgarian-speaking metropolitans to dioceses with large Bulgarian populations.

A request is a far cry from a command, and it didn’t solve anything. In 1862, the Ottoman government again attempted to find a solution to the friction between the Bulgarian population and the Greek hierarchy. The Sultan appointed a mixed commission, which proposed two solutions: (1) the Bulgarian Church would appoint bishops for any district in which the Bulgarians outnumbered the Greeks, or (2) the Bulgarian Church would have the right to have a metropolitan in every province, and a bishop in every diocese, with a strong Bulgarian population (even if a Greek bishop was also present). Both solutions were rejected by the Greek church leadership.

For a few years, the Bulgarian situation was fairly quiet, but it was only a matter of time before the next crisis. It came in 1865, when Ecumenical Patriarch Sophronius attempted to install Greek bishops over dioceses full of Bulgarian people. The Bulgarians consistently rejected these bishops, in some cases going so far as to physically attack church buildings. By 1866 all of these Greek bishops had been expelled from the Bulgarian regions, and the Greek-Bulgarian rift had only deepened.

In 1867, Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory VI returned to the throne after a decades-long absence. He was on good terms with the Russians and worked with the Russian ambassador in Constantinople to come up with a solution to the Bulgarian crisis. Their plan was to create an autonomous Bulgarian Church with eleven dioceses, but crucially, this did not include the dioceses in Macedonia and Thrace that had a mix of Greeks and Bulgarians. In part because of this omission, the Bulgarians rejected the proposal.

Just before Christmas in 1868, three Bulgarian bishops living in Constantinople wrote to the Ecumenical Patriarch to inform him that, henceforth, they would no longer commemorate him in the divine services, as they did not recognize his authority. The Ecumenical Patriarchate deposed the three bishops and pressured the Ottoman government to exile them from the city and close the Bulgarian church in Constantinople.

The next year, Patriarch Gregory proposed an Ecumenical Council to settle the Bulgarian Question. The Churches of Greece, Romania, and Serbia supported the proposal, but the Church of Russia was against it because it feared that the result could be schism. Better, according to the Russians, to maintain the uncomfortable status quo than to risk a break in communion.


Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory VI

In February 1870, the Bulgarian crisis entered a new stage, when the Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz issued a firman, creating the Bulgarian Exarchate, a new church led by a primate (with the title “Exarch”) and its own Holy Synod. On the one hand, the Exarchate had the character of an autonomous church: Constantinople would supply the church with Holy Chrism, the Exarch would commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch in divine services, and difficult matters were to be submitted to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. On the other hand, the Exarchate was functionally autocephalous: while the Ecumenical Patriarch was to be informed of the election of a new Exarch, his consent was not required, and the firman prescribed that the regulations of the Exarchate specifically “exclude the interference, whether direct or indirect, of the Patriarch in the affairs of the Exarchate and more especially in the election of bishops and the Exarch.”

The most innovative and ecclesiologically problematic provision of the firman was Article 10, which, after listing the provinces that would comprise the Exarchate, added the following: “If all, or not less than two-thirds, of the inhabitants of Orthodox faith in places other than those aforementioned wish to be subject to the Exarchate in their spiritual affairs, and if this fact is clearly established, they shall be permitted to do as they wish; but such permission is to be granted only on the demand, or with the assent, of the entire population or of at least two-thirds of the same.” Under this provision, then, the Orthodox faithful in a given diocese could basically vote to switch from one jurisdiction to another, without the agreement of the hierarchy or the rest of the clergy. And given the nationalistic backdrop to the whole Bulgarian question, this amounted to a definition of territory based on ethnicity: if a sufficiently large number of Bulgarians lived in a diocese of Constantinople, that diocese could be taken from Constantinople and given to the Exarchate. This is what would become known as phyletism – the distinction of races or ethnicities in the Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Gregory protested in a letter dated March 24 (Julian) and requested permission to call an Ecumenical Council. The Ottoman government ignored the protest, so Gregory then attempted to resign. The Porte rejected this: they were satisfied with Gregory’s performance as Patriarch and would not accept his resignation. Then the Greek Orthodox lay people of Constantinople began to protest in the streets, shouting, “Long live our sect! We don’t let Bulgarization of our children, we don’t let the Slavs eat us!”

In May, Patriarch Gregory had a tense meeting with representatives of the newly-formed Bulgarian Exarchate that included this exchange:

Patriarch Gregory: “Which people?”

Bulgarian delegates: “Those Orthodox Christians who comprise a whole people in European Turkey; they are called ‘the Bulgarian people.’

Patriarch: “I recognize no Bulgarian people, nor its metropolitans, nor its delegates. I admitted you not as delegates but as private petitioners. I don’t consider the issue to be irresolvable, but I don’t recognize the ferman.[sic] The government cannot resolve an ecclesiastical matter. Since our two sides have been unable to agree, I have left the solution of the problem to a third-party ‘arbiter,’ the Ecumenical Synod.”

Bulgarian delegates: “We, as Orthodox Christians, would gladly welcome a third-party arbiter who would be impartial, holy, and inspired by the Holy Ghost. The right thing to do, seeing that we cannot agree, would be to call us and let us choose a third-party arbiter together…”

[The delegates then attacked the Ecumenical Synod, arguing that it was not impartial. In what followed they sought the Patriarch’s forgiveness.]

Patriarch: “I cannot forgive you; I must return this sacred trust as I received it.”

Bulgarian delegates: “Beware! Is that your answer to a nation of six million? Our words are their words.”

Patriarch: “I cannot.”

Bulgarian delegates: “Do not think that with your stance you will force the Bulgarian people to change the course of that which has already begun. The people know they are Orthodox, and they will never abandon the Orthodox faith. But they no longer wish to be enslaved by the Patriarchate.”

Patriarch: [silence]

Leader of the Bulgarian delegation: “Get up, let’s go. We’ll have no further dealings with you.”

The Holy Synod of Constantinople wrote to the Ottoman government, begging for permission to hold an Ecumenical Council. This time the Ottomans agreed, and in November, Patriarch Gregory sent the Grand Vizier a short letter outlining his plan for the council, assuring the Grand Vizier that the council would focus entirely on the Bulgarian question and would not touch on any secular issues that might interest the Ottoman government.

In the early months of 1872, preparations for a council were underway, but the Bulgarians were not just passively waiting to be condemned. Patriarch Gregory became increasingly isolated – despised by the Bulgarians, he lost the support of Russia and lost the confidence of the Turks. On April 4, the Russian embassy informed Gregory that the Holy Synod of Russia would not participate in a council. This, it seems, was the last straw for the beleaguered Ecumenical Patriarch, who lamented, “The Porte will triumph… All that remains for me, the humble shepherd, is to retire to private life. I will regret all my life that Russia has let slip this opportunity to raise up the prestige of the Great Church and of Orthodoxy in the East.” Soon after this, Gregory announced his intention to resign, and in June, he sent a formal resignation letter to the Porte. This time, they accepted it.

Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimus VI

In September, Anthimus VI was elected to a third term as Ecumenical Patriarch. Anthimus had the support of the Russian ambassador, and he immediately reached out to the leaders of the Bulgarian Exarchate to try to resolve the crisis. Anthimus insisted that the innovative provision in Article 10 of the Exarchate’s firman had to be changed – the Bulgarian Church had to possess fixed boundaries, without the possibility of an ethnically-defined territorial expansion. Anthimus also pushed for the Bulgarian Exarch to be confirmed by the Ecumenical Patriarch, which would firmly establish the Exarchate as an autonomous church under Constantinople. Finally, Anthimus wanted each Bulgarian household to pay taxes to the Patriarchate. Needless to say, the Bulgarian leaders rejected all of these demands.


On the feast of Theophany, 1872, three of the Bulgarian Exarchate bishops defied Ecumenical Patriarchate and celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Bulgarian parish in Constantinople, a clear violation of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s jurisdiction. This act – serving a defiant, unauthorized liturgy in the capital city – had become a sort of signature act of rebellion by the Bulgarian church leadership.

The Holy Synod of Constantinople responded by declaring the Bulgarian Exarchate guilty of the heresy of phyletism, “the distinction, disputes, quarrel, jealousies, and divisions among races in the Church of Christ.” Already, these quarrels had become a very real problem for Orthodoxy in the Ottoman Empire, with the faithful of numerous dioceses voting to switch from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Bulgarian Exarchate in the early years of the Exarchate’s existence.

In February, the first mixed council of the Bulgarian Exarchate elected Hilarion of Loftcha as their primate. But Hilarion was an old man, not really suited to the primacy of a new and very controversial church, and he resigned five days later. The mixed council had not yet even sent Hilarion’s name to the Sultan for confirmation, and they met again and elected Metropolitan Anthim of Vidin as the Exarch. The Porte confirmed Anthim’s election, and he was installed as Exarch in April, after which he had an audience with the Sultan. The new Exarch Anthim tried to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch three times, and each time he was turned down; the Patriarch would not even permit the Bulgarian bishops to hold services in the Bulgarian church at the Phanar. Finally, the Bulgarians took a decisive step: on the feast of St George, Exarch Anthim and three other bishops, already condemned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the Bulgarian church in Constantinople, in defiance of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s jurisdiction in his own city. In May, they declared the Exarchate to be entirely autocephalous. The Ecumenical Patriarchate responded to all this by deposing and excommunicating Anthim.

In July, the Sultan granted permission for the Bulgarian Exarchate to establish its headquarters in Constantinople – yet another innovation, since, of course, the capital city was already under the undisputed jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch. While it is common to associate “overlapping jurisdictions” with the “diaspora,” here we have an example of this phenomenon in one of the ancient sees of Orthodoxy.

Exarch Anthim I, first head of the Bulgarian Exarchate

In September, the Holy and Great Council met in Constantinople. This was not, in the end, the Ecumenical Council that former Patriarch Gregory VI had hoped for; instead, it was an entirely Greek affair, comprised exclusively of bishops from the Ottoman Empire. The council was chaired by Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimus and included the Greek Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and the Archbishop of Cyprus, along with three former Ecumenical Patriarchs. The Russians were notably absent, although after the council the Russian Church was, for years, careful not to enter into communion with the Bulgarian Exarchate.

Article 1 of the council’s decree formally condemned phyletism as heresy: “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.” This was nearly identical to the condemnation of phyletism by the Holy Synod of Constantinople back in January. In Article 2, the council anathematized the leaders of the Bulgarian Exarchate and all who followed and supported them.

About 32 bishops in total participated in the council, and all but one of them – Patriarch Cyril II of Jerusalem – signed the council’s decree. When he returned to Jerusalem, his own Holy Synod demanded that he reverse course and accept the council’s decision. Cyril refused, and the Holy Synod of Jerusalem deposed him. In its decision the Synod declared that, by rejecting the council and its condemnation of phyletism, Cyril had made himself a schismatic. The Jerusalem Synod sent its decision to the Turkish government and the Ecumenical Patriarch, both of which accepted it as legitimate. But Cyril himself rejected it, and chaos ensued. Here is how the scene is described in a contemporary account:

The deposed Patriarch refused to recognize the lawfulness of his deposition, and declared his intention to celebrate, on November 23, vespers in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The clergy and the monks refused to assist him. From the surrounding country an excited crowd of adherents of the Patriarch, led by the Russian dragoman (an official interpreter), invaded Jerusalem, spreading considerable alarm among the opponents of the Patriarch. Police soldiers entered the cells of the monks in order to drag them before the Patriarch. As the monks offered resistance the state of siege was declared, and the monks shut up in the monastery of the Holy Sepulcher. The Patriarch, in the evening, and again on the next day, repaired to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, attended by the Russian and Greek consuls.

At this point the other European consuls got involved, and the whole crisis became something of an international incident. The Ottoman governor of Jerusalem was under heavy pressure from the Russian consul to support Patriarch Cyril, while the German consul pushed in the other direction. When word reached the Greek government that its consul had backed Cyril, the Greeks stripped him of his consular position. Finally the Ottoman government intervened to restore order, exiling Cyril to an island and ordering the local newspapers to stop publishing polemical articles on the subject. After twenty-five  years as Patriarch, Cyril was succeeded by Procopius of Gaza.

The drama in Jerusalem wasn’t over just yet, though. The Russian government continued to support the now ex-Patriarch Cyril, and in retaliation for his deposition, they laid an embargo on all of the Jerusalem Patriarchate’s properties within the Russian Empire, including thirty major revenue-generating estates in Bessarabia. The Russian ambassador in Constantinople successfully lobbied the Porte on Cyril’s behalf: while Cyril was not restored as Patriarch, he was freed from his exile after just a few weeks, and the Porte formally apologized for its treatment of him.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch convinced the Ottoman government to order the Bulgarian clergy not to wear cassocks or otherwise to dress in the traditional garb of Orthodox clergymen, to distinguish them from (canonical) clergy. The Bulgarian Exarch protested that this would cause great confusion among his people, and he refused to comply.

The European Powers welcomed the turmoil in the Orthodox world. Jack Fairey quotes the Austrian foreign ministry, which hoped that the conflict between Greeks and Slavs would become a “definite and complete divorce.” Fairey writes, “Should Orthodoxy in the East become irrevocably divided into two hostile camps, Russia must lose half its influence as it would be forced to support one of the adversaries and ‘by the same token, to alienate the sympathies of the other’. It was therefore manifestly in the interests of not only Austria but also the Porte ‘to break the unity of this Church which, under the patronage of Russia, has until now loomed before [the Porte] as a formidable power.”


The story I’ve just told — the story of how an autocephalous Bulgarian Church came into being, and the 1872 council that condemned ethnophyletism and anathematized the Bulgarian leaders — is not as simple as good guys versus bad guys. Theologically, ecclesiologically, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the 1872 council were 100% correct: there is no place in the Church for the separation of people into races, and the idea that a bishop could have his diocese taken away from him and given to another simply because of demographic shifts is clearly uncanonical. That said, the Bulgarians had legitimate grievances against the Greek hierarchy, and it was reasonable for them to want bishops from among their own people, to worship in their own language, etc. Had the Ecumenical Patriarchate been more pastoral in its approach to the Bulgarians in the early-to-mid 19th century, perhaps the Bulgarian schism could have been avoided.

It’s notable that the Bulgarians achieved ecclesiastical independence before they established their own nation-state. This is very different from the other 19th century cases of Greece, Romania, and Serbia, all of which received autocephaly after, and as a consequence of, statehood. It was hard enough for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to surrender its jurisdiction over Greece, Romania, and Serbia, but to lose territories that were still within the Ottoman Empire — this was a step too far.

The “Bulgarian Schism” would not be healed for another seven decades, until 1945, by which point everyone involved in this story (including the Ottoman and Russian Empires) was long dead, and the whole world had changed. It’s one of the longest schisms in church history (maybe THE longest?) to actually have a happy ending.


Main Sources

Methodist Quarterly Review articles from 1870 to 1874 (republished here).

Ümit Eser, “‘Philetism’ in the Balkans: The Formation of the Bulgarian Exarchate (1830-1878),” M.A. thesis, Sabanci University Research Database (2009).

Jack Fairey, The Great Powers and Orthodox Christendom: The Crisis over the Eastern Church in the Era of the Crimean War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Dimitris Stamatopoulos, “The Bulgarian Schism Revisited,” Modern Greek Studies Yearbook 24/25 (2008/2009), 105-125.

Dimitris Stamatopoulos, “Orthodox Ecumenicity and the Bulgarian Schism,” in Etudes Balkaniques LI/1: Greece, Bulgaria and European Challenges in the Balkans (Sofia: Institut d’Etudes balkaniques & Centre de Threcologie, 2015), 70-86.

Dimitris Stamatopoulos, “The Splitting of the Orthodox Millet as a Secularizing Process,” in Griechische Kultur in Südosteuropa in der Neuzeit. Beiträge zum Symposium in memoriam Gunnar Hering (Wien, 16.–18. Dezember 2004), 243-270.

Richard Von Mach, The Bulgarian Exarchate: Its History and the Extent of its Authority in Turkey (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907).

4 Replies to “The Longest Schism in Modern Orthodoxy: Bulgarian Autocephaly & Ethnophyletism”

  1. This type of history has been obscured in the west for some time. I majored in History and Bible (protestant) and as a ardent student of history became convinced of orthodoxy. Even as a catechumen I understand that we have natures and passions that still have to be reconciled to Christ and his Church. Devout men can be right but wrong in their approach. Thank you for this article. Is there a book that expands this?

  2. Abolishing Patriarchates never seems to ends well.
    Refusing to recognize Autocephaly also seems to never end well.
    What’s that they say about failing to learn from history…

  3. This quote, from the (very interesting!) article, is amazing. Nothing new under the sun? ‘The European Powers welcomed the turmoil in the Orthodox world. Jack Fairey quotes the Austrian foreign ministry, which hoped that the conflict between Greeks and Slavs would become a “definite and complete divorce.” Fairey writes, “Should Orthodoxy in the East become irrevocably divided into two hostile camps, Russia must lose half its influence as it would be forced to support one of the adversaries and ‘by the same token, to alienate the sympathies of the other’. It was therefore manifestly in the interests of not only Austria but also the Porte ‘to break the unity of this Church which, under the patronage of Russia, has until now loomed before [the Porte] as a formidable power.”’

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