Bulgarian Orthodox Church: Besides the Orthodox Church ‘there are no other churches, only heresies and schisms’

Written by on April 22, 2016 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on Bulgarian Orthodox Church: Besides the Orthodox Church ‘there are no other churches, only heresies and schisms’

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, has adopted hard-line policy positions ahead of the Pan-Orthodox Council to be held in Crete in June 2016 – stating, among other things, that besides the “Holy Orthodox Church there are no other churches, but only heresies and schisms, and to call these ‘churches’ is theologically, dogmatically and canonically completely wrong”.

The Pan-Orthodox Council will bring together all the universally-recognised autocephalous churches of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the first such gathering in more than 1000 years.

It has been in the planning since 1961 and will cover a range of issues, including the relations between the Orthodox Church and the rest of the Christian world.

Other issues to be covered include the Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World; The Orthodox Diaspora; Autonomy and its Manner of Proclamation; The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments; the Significance of Fasting and its Application Today.

Contentious issues, such as agreement on a church calendar common to all Orthodox churches, have been removed from the agenda.

Crete was chosen as the venue for the Pan-Orthodox Council over the originally-planned venue of Istanbul, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, because the Russian Orthodox Church was extremely reluctant to go to the Turkish city because of the tensions between Moscow and Ankara over the 2015 downing of a Russian military aircraft by Turkey near the border with Syria.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod announced on April 21 its positions, amending an earlier draft document.

Chaired by Bulgarian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Neofit and attended by all but four metropolitans, the meeting considered letters from Lovech Metropolitan Gavriil, priests in his diocese, and a letter from Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai – backed up by a petition signed by 240 priests in his diocese – on the issue of the attitude of the Orthodox Church to the rest of Christendom.

On a point about the “unity of all”, the church said, it always had been understood that those who had fallen into heresy or schism had to first return to the Orthodox faith and prove their obedience to the Holy Church “and then, through repentance, they may be received into the Church”.

On the issue of “bilateral theological dialogues aiming to seek lost Christian unity, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church said that it should be noted that the “Holy Orthodox Church, which is the one and only, never lost unity in the faith and fellowship of the Holy Spirit among Christians and as it will last until the end of the world, the Lord has said that ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against it’ this fellowship will endure forever”.

The Holy Synod went on to state its view that “besides the Holy Orthodox Church there are no other churches, but only heresies and schisms, and to call these ‘churches’ is theologically, dogmatically and canonically completely wrong”.

Among other points, the document approved by the Holy Synod went on to say that “thank God” the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had left the World Council of Churches in 1998.

This was a reference to the fact that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which joined the WCC in 1961 and was an active participant – with Dr Todor Sabev as a WCC vice-chairman – quit in 1998 as an anti-ecumenical stance came to dominate the Bulgarian church. In any case, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s participation in the WCC had been less inspired by an ecumenical spirit but, in the decades of communism, as a means to help push Soviet influence over the body – as Bulgarian historian Momchil Metodiev explained in his book Between Faith and Compromise (the Dossier Commission identified Sabev, who died in 2008, as having been secret service State Security agent Damyanov).

That historical background aside, the April 2016 position of the church’s Holy Synod said that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church could not be a member of an organisation which holds a view of “one of many or as a branch of the One church, which seeks a way and struggles for its restoration through this World Council of Churches”.

The Synod quoted the Creed, saying that there was one God and one Church.

The April 2016 position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is hardly the first time that a hard-line position has been heard from some of its leaders, perhaps most notably of all, Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai.

In 2007, in a television interview not long after becoming Plovdiv Metropolitan, Nikolai was asked his opinion about the Pope.

“If he professes a different belief than the Orthodox, then the church canons make him a heretic,” Nikolai replied.

However, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s relations with the Roman Catholic Church are not without some co-operation, such as commemorations on May 24 of their shared saints Cyril and Methodius, the fact that the late Pope John Paul II lent the Bulgarian Orthodox Church the use of a church in Rome, and in previous years, on the occasion of the Western and Eastern Christian churches’ Easter falling on the same date, some local joint liturgical celebrations by Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy.

(Photo of Alexander Nevsky cathedral, Sofia: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)

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