Moscow patriarchate faces possibility of failure of Orthodox meeting


Bulgarian synod refuses to pay 120 thousand Euros into general fund

by Aleksei Zygmont

Nezasvisimaia Gazeta, 2 June 2016


In the last month before the Pan-Orthodox Council, three local Orthodox churches have put forward a number of claims against its rules and documents, and they threaten their own absence in the event that they are not satisfied. Such a development of events may be interpreted as a struggle for prestige and a desire to achieve certain benefits.


The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) under the direction of Patriarch of Bulgaria Neofit on 1 June of this year demanded the postponement of conducting the Pan-Orthodox Council, which is supposed to start on the island of Crete on 19 June, and the consideration of a number of statements of claims against the rules of the meeting. In the event that these demands are not met, the Bulgarians declare that they will refuse to participate in the work of the council.


In the minutes of the session, published on the official website of the BOC, among the claims is cited the absence from the agenda of critical (that is, requiring immediate resolution) problems; the disagreement of other churches with several provisions of a number of the documents suggested for discussion; the impossibility of their revision during the sessions; the infelicitous seating of participants, observers, and guests of the council; and the necessity of unjustified financial contributions of each church into the "common fund" of the event.


We recall that in April of this year, the synod of the Bulgarian church criticized point 5 of the document "Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world," the draft of which was approved for adoption at the council. At the time, the BOC demanded to clarify that "besides the holy Orthodox church, other churches do not exist, but only heresies and schisms, and to call the latter 'churches' is completely incorrect theologically, dogmatically, and canonically."


Thus, the "only and true" church does not have and cannot have any kind of "relations" with the Christian world, because in and of itself it represents its plenitude. In addition, on 25 May of this year, similar but more substantive criticisms, directed against documents on Christian marriage and the mission of Orthodoxy in the contemporary world, were presented by the synod of the Georgian church.


Georgy Engelgardt, research fellow of the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told NG that the claims of the Bulgarian church are connected with its dissatisfaction with the role of extra which the main players—Moscow and Constantinople—have assigned it. "Inasmuch as the preparation of the council is gradually reaching its final stage, the Bulgarian church shows by this step its displeasure with the fact that all decisions are being made between the ecumenical patriarchate and Chisty Lane (the residence of the patriarch of Moscow and all-Rus—NG). Each of them has its own strategy and its own interests, which they want to achieve, and it turns out that in these global schemes other churches, willy-nilly, are relegated to the place of extras. The Bulgarian church has clearly declared that it wants greater attention to its own interests and a recognition of its weight. From the diplomatic point of view, declaring this at the final stage is a reasonable course: the lesser players have a chance of bargaining for greater influence for themselves."


On the other hand, it is quite likely that the Bulgarian church wants to protect itself from accusations of ecumenism and aiding ecumenicists that are voiced on the part of the domestic church "zealots of piety" in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and other Orthodox countries. The RPTs, which, after the meeting of Patriarch of Moscow and all-Rus Kirill with Pope Francis in Havana, has received a flood of criticism as thick as never before, is trying to give the impressions that it [i.e., the criticism] does not even exist. However the Bulgarian church, which only recently finally fixed the church schism of 1992 (incidentally, also with the help of a special pan-Orthodox council of 1998 in Sophia), cannot allow itself to do the same. "A small local church can easily take into account the moods of the church's lower strata, the believing people," Engelgardt thinks. "The Bulgarians' criticism of the document on relations with the Christian world is the standard set of claims and positions of rank-and-file laity, who view any potential relations with the Vatican rather cautiously."


We add that the relations of the BOC with the secular authorities remain rather tense. It received state registration only 13 years ago, in 2003, and the Committee on Affairs of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Religious Cults played no little part in its schism when in 1989 it registered the first "alternative" church structure. Now the Bulgarian authorities are actively building relations with the Vatican--no longer ago than 16 May of this year Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev had an audience with Pope Francis—and there is nothing surprising about the fact that against this background, anti-Catholic feelings are growing in the BOC.


The leader of the secretariat for inter-Orthodox relations of the Department of Interchurch Relations of the RPTs, Archpriest Igor Yakimchuk, in his commentary for NG, declared that he does not see anything out of the ordinary in the Bulgarians' decision: "Each church has the complete right to define its own positions relative to the Pan-Orthodox Council and the character of its documents. Discussions on this topic are going on now in all local churches. The decision of the synod of the Bulgarian church testifies that it treats very seriously the topic of the council and that it is concerned that if it is conducted so soon it be conducted properly."


It can hardly be considered a simple coincidence that these questions were touched on by Patriarch Kirill in a letter on 1 June addressed to Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I. In it he criticized several aspects of the rules of the council and in the event that this criticism is not considered, he reports that the Russian Orthodox Church will refuse to participate. This was reported by the Greek newspaper To Vima, whose report was relayed to the Bulgarian church Internet publication Doors of Orthodoxy, expressing its displeasure that Patriarch Kirill not only duplicated a number of the Bulgarians' demands but also gave the impression that he supposedly knows nothing about their statements.


In particular, the letter of the head of the RPTs calls attention to the fact that in his capacity of chairman of the council, the head of the ecumenical patriarchate sits at the head of the table, while on the basis of the idea of the equality of churches, their representatives were supposed to sit in a semicircle. In addition, he pointed out that foreign observers from among the Catholics and protestants should be located not behind the chairman's back but at a distance so that they do not fall into the field of vision of the television cameras. Otherwise the impression will be created that they supposedly are participating in the work of the council on a par with the Orthodox. Finally, Patriarch Kirill called his brother primate to publish information about the cost of organizing the council and, in particular, to state the figure that each local Orthodox church will be expected to contribute to the general fund. According to the information of Doors of Orthodoxy, Constantinople requested from each of them an additional 120 thousand Euros, and it was because of this that the synod of the Bulgarian church made its comment about "large and unjustified expenses."


Igor Yakimchuk confirmed that the letter really exists, but he explained that agreement regarding the questions raised in it has already been achieved. "There really was a letter from the primate of our church to Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew. It deals with the quite specific question about the way of seating council participants, principally the primates of the local Orthodox churches. We are satisfied that the Constantinople side has heeded our suggestions and resolved the issue positively."


Regarding the possibility that the council could be postponed, Yakimchuk spoke rather vaguely: "It is difficult to predict anything now. Nobody would undertake to do this. It is necessary to wait to see how events will develop."


As is evident, the pan-Orthodox quality of the council has become its Achilles' heel. In accordance with its ideas and rules, representatives of all 14 local Orthodox churches who recognize one another should be present, and the decision to adopt or to reject one or another document should be made only unanimously. At the same time there is no doubt that at least two of these churches—Moscow and Constantinople—have staked a lot on the council and they have devoted to its organization a great deal of labor and resources. Such a situation has made them extremely vulnerable to blackmail on the part of other churches, which are lesser in regard to numbers of believers and territorial reach, who can threaten to sabotage the council, seeking changes in their favor in any documents and the removal from the agenda of questions that are inconvenient to them, or simply increasing thereby their own prestige. As regards the letter, then in it Patriarch Kirill apparently hastened to declare the very same questions in his own name so that in any case it will prevent the failure of the event that had previously been declared to be "historic." (tr. by PDS, posted 3 June 2016)

Russia Religion News Current News Items

Editorial disclaimer: RRN does not intend to certify the accuracy of information presented in articles. RRN simply intends to certify the accuracy of the English translation of the contents of the articles as they appeared in news media of countries of the former USSR.

If material is quoted, please give credit to the publication from which it came. It is not necessary to credit this Web page. If material is transmitted electronically, please include reference to the URL,