A May 18 meeting of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, to discuss the controversy surrounding Alexander Nevsky cathedral dean Archimandrite Dionisii is expected to see public protests against him – and a counter-protest in support.
It would not be the first time that Dionisii has been the subject of a protest. In December 2014, the Holy Synod withdrew a recommendation to promote him to bishop after a protest by clergy and laity was held outside its central Sofia headquarters.
That protest arose from Dionisii’s involvement in the awarding of the centuries-obsolete title of Archon to business people with controversial reputations. Archon was a title granted hundreds of years ago in the Orthodox world to lay people of unblemished repute who did good works to assist the church.
Dionisii also was at the centre of controversy some months ago after attempting to introduce a couvert charge of five leva (about 2.50 euro) to enter the cathedral. The idea was struck down by the Holy Synod.
The current controversy surrounding Dionisii arose after the playing of secular music, the involvement of a military guard of honour and the letting off of fireworks during celebrations of the Orthodox Easter at Alexander Nevsky cathedral.
Clergy at the cathedral have refused to serve in liturgies alongside Dionisii, who also is the subject of a petition emanating from Lovech Metropolitan Gavriil demanding Dionisii’s demotion.
Dionisii’s critics allege that he has committed numerous violations of church canon in serving liturgies. They also accuse him in standing in a spot in the church during services that rightfully belongs to a bishop, though he does not hold that clerical rank.
Dionisii has been on a media counter-offensive in recent days, holding a lengthy news conference at the church and making several appearances in the media, most recently on May 17 on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television.
He said that the controversy around the fireworks display at Easter (unprecedented in Bulgarian Orthodox Christian celebrations of the religion’s holiest day, according to his detractors) was artificially generated for political reasons.
Dionisii said that the public controversy had its roots in a request by the Reformist Bloc – a centre-right coalition that is part of Bulgaria’s multi-party government deal – to change the name of Alexander Nevsky cathedral.
The idea of changing the name of the cathedral was floated in Bulgaria in protest against Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The cathedral was given the name of Nevsky, Russia’s patron saint, because of Russia’s role in the 19th liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.
Dionisii told BNT that the proposal to change the name of the cathedral was “absurd and unacceptable” because after a church was consecrated, no one could change its name.
The Holy Synod meeting on May 18 is to discuss whether fireworks and secular music should again be part of Easter celebrations. There is also pressure from some quarters to remove Dionisii from the post of head of the church board, to which he was appointed in late 2015.
On May 16, Bulgarian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Neofit received a small group who are defenders of Dionisii, specialist church news website Dveri reported.
Dveri described the meeting as “secret”, given that there was no official statement from the church about it. The outcome of the meeting was not known, the report said.
At his May 15 news conference, Dionisii gave a detailed account of all his actions since being appointed head of the church board of Alexander Nevsky cathedral. He described the two priests who refused to serve alongside him as “schismatics”.
He also hit out at Gavriil, at Gerasim, the secretary of the Holy Synod and at a number of journalists and activists who, he said, allowed themselves to dictate what happens in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. A “small, awkward, noisy group is terrorising the whole church,” Dionisii said.
Dionisii denied violating the canons and defended his innovations in services, saying, “anything that creates joy is blessed by the church”.
He expressed indignation that those who did not see the beauty in the fireworks and called them kitsch were among the worst-dressed when appearing on television talk shows.
Dionisii also responded to calls for him to be put on trial in a church court. “I cannot be tried by an ecclesiastical court before being ordained a bishop,” he told reporters.
He alleged that Gavriil, in attacking him, was motivated by money, to isolate him from decisions on finances for repairs to the cathedral.
He added that Gavriil was the uncle of one of the priests who refused to serve alongside him in the cathedral. The priests who had rebelled against him were undisciplined, uneducated and passive, Dionisii said.
Gavriil told Dveri in response to Dionisii’s statements that when the Archimandrite had been appointed to the cathedral post, he had been specifically warned not to undertake anything without consulting the Holy Synod, “but he did not listen to us”.
Metropolitan Gavriil said that as to the management of the finances for repairing the cathedral, there was an interdepartmental committtee, involving several government ministries and Sofia municipality. Decisions were taken jointly and then approved by the Holy Synod.
He denied that Dionisii was being isolated from the activities of the commission. “So far we’ve had two meetings and Dionisii was present at both,” Gavriil said.