Different paths: the Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox churches

In recent months, Bulgarian – Russian church relations have been dominated by a minor dispute – the conflict at the St Nikolai Russian Church in Sofia between the church’s Russian primate and most of the congregation.

At first glance, the conflict is purely a personal one. The recently-appointed Abbot Filip Vasiltsev, representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, introduced innovations in the life of the parish, the ultimate goal of which was to reduce the role of the Bulgarian priests and laity.

The dispute centres around whether the church is just a representative mission of the Moscow Patriarchate to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church or whether it is a parish in which Bulgarian priests serve and where Bulgarian lay people are involved in worship.

Although small, the Russian Church – as it is known – in Sofia occupies an important place in Bulgarian spiritual life. Established in the early 20th century, until 1950 Bishop Serafim Sobolev – revered by many as a saint – served there, and today, along with Russian priests, the church has some of the best-trained Bulgarian priests. The church is visited by Russians, Bulgarians and people from mixed marriages.

The conflict has smouldered for several months with little hope of being resolved soon.

The dispute has attracted the attention of the Bulgarian media, and during his visit to Bulgaria about a month ago, Russian Patriarch Kirill criticised attempts to maintain the church solely as one for ethnic Russians, which however did not lead to a change of approach by the governor of the mission.

Recently, the current primate, Filip, was supported by his predecessor, Abbot Isidore, who had arrived at this view of Jerusalem. In a sermon in the Russian Church, Isidore expressed surprise that “Orthodox Christians could rise against their authorities” and he came to the conclusion that “in hell there is a democracy, and in heaven there is a kingdom. In hell, everyone is equal, but in heaven there is a hierarchy”.

The Russian Church issue is indicative of the different directions that the Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox Christian churches have taken after communism.

The Bulgarian church comes across as a marginal and weak institution that must get by in a very secular environment and cope with a political class that gives expression to its Orthodoxy only on major national holidays.

Expectations of the church are extremely diverse – to be the “guardian of the Bulgarian national spirit”, the defender of conservative moral values, but also to be the bearer of universal and cosmopolitan messages.

The Bulgarian church rarely pronounces itself on, and is even less able to influence, laws being made or other matters of important public debate.

Immediately after the fall of communism, the Bulgarian church was afflicted by a schism among the senior clergy, which lasted a decade and ended only in 2004. The public authority of the senior clergy was dramatically affected by the disclosure by the Dossier Commission that 11 of the 15 current metropolitans of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had collaborated with communist-era State Security.

Church head Patriarch Maxim, controversial in society but authoritative in the church – and who emerged clean after Dossier Commission scrutiny – cannot, at the age of 97, create the image of a dynamic church.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s international contacts are very limited and internal disputes prevent it from coming up with a unified position on almost every major domestic or international issue.

At first glance, the democratisation of Bulgaria after 1989 worsened the situation and the authority of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Russian Orthodox Church. As the largest Orthodox Christian church in the world, the Moscow Patriarchate has a serious claim to be the champion of the Orthodox world.

The Russian church is headed by a young, energetic and charismatic Patriarch known for his international contacts and influence in Russian society and the country’s political circles. The Russian church enjoys an enviable inner discipline, enabling it to appear strong and solid to the outside world. It has, and frequently exercises, the right to decide on all important social issues in Russia.

Senior clergy in Russia enjoy considerable social prestige, and criticism of its bishops is limited to rumours on the internet about the lifestyles that some of them lead.

Several studies published in recent years allege close links between senior Russian clergy and the KGB but Russia is unlikely ever to create a public structure to make public these relations.

The impossibility of genuine discussion is the reason why disagreements in the Orthodox church hierarchy sometimes are expressed at extreme events, such as happenings in the Christ the Saviour Church in Moscow, which are then sanctioned by the state.

This unity allows the Russian church to be an active player on the international scene, not only in its opinions in relation to other Orthodox churches, but the Vatican too.

The question then is, is Russia an example of the “symphony” between church and state, so long awaited in the Orthodox world?

But this unity has its price. And that price is difficulty in hearing the opinions of troublesome laity and priests.

An example of which is in the dispute around the Russian Church in Sofia.

During the years of communism, senior clergy of the Russian and Bulgarian churches were subjected to being used as tools for the sake of short-term and almost always purely secular purposes.

Overcoming this tradition in the post-communist era is difficult, more so in two countries where there are circles that have an interest in preserving it. And there lie the differences in the development of the Russian and Bulgarian churches.

The first has taken the path of centralization and monopolization, and the second, the path of debate. The first is the path of a deepening merger with the state, thus securing huge influence, social prestige and wide international contacts. The other is the path of “separation of church and state”, the conversion of the Orthodox church into one of many competing social structures fighting for influence over state and society – the way of discussions, sometimes with schisms, but towards the truth.

These two paths are the reason for the differing perspectives on the problems of the modern secular world.

One, favoured by the representatives of the Russian church, is the thesis of “Christianityphobia” in the modern world, valid not only for Islamic regimes but also for democratic states dominated by secular and ultimately anti-Christian values.

Russian church representatives like to compare the policy of secular states in Western Europe with the atheistic policies pursued by the Soviet government in the years of communism.

However enticing this argument may be, it shows ignorance of the functioning of a democratic state and especially the fact that that state must take into account the views of various minority groups not always favourable towards the Christian church.

The second path involves weighty debates on the recent past, and reaching consensus on that is achieved only through lengthy debates. This is the case in Bulgaria, where revelations of the secret service pasts of most Bulgarian metropolitans sparked an active social and religious discussion.

In short, the first is the path of centralization and the attempt to impose change from above, which involves strengthening the position of the episcopate at the expense of the priests and especially the laity.

The second is the path of change from below, the gradual renewal of the church, respecting the opinions of lay people and priests. In a democratic environment, such discussions guarantee a place for the church in the media, even if sometimes that media tends to concentrate on the “sensational” issues and opinions. This was the reason recently for one famous Bulgarian cultural specialist to speak of “media offensive to Orthodoxy”.

The conflict in the Russian church in Sofia is only seemingly insignificant and unrelated to the public presence of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria or Russia. In fact, that dispute is indicative of the ways in which each church in the two countries is searching for its place in a secular society.

(Photo: Antoine Taveneaux)



Momchil Metodiev

Momchil Metodiev is a historian, whose research is focused on the communist period and especially on church-state relations. He is editor of the Bulgarian Christianity and Culture Magazine.

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