The numbers game in the battle over a new Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
Counting up the number of metropolitans who have declared support for the interim leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, some media reports have declared that Varna metropolitan Kiril now decisively has the upper hand in the battle to succeed the late Patriarch Maxim – but the numbers game is more complicated than that.
On November 10 2012, Kiril was elected to stand in the stead of Maxim pending the choice by an electoral college made up of senior clerics and lay people of a new Patriarch. But the choice of Kiril has led to a cacophony of controversy from a rival camp focused on Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai who allege that the choice of Kiril broke the rules.
Nikolai has withdrawn from participation in the Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, saying that he is observing 40 days of mourning for Maxim. Nikolai’s close allies, Veliko Turnovo Metropolitan Grigorii and Pleven Metropolitan Ignatii, also have not been attending.
In their absence, the Holy Synod, which has begun its winter sessions, announced that it had considered the charge that Kiril’s election as acting head of the church and considered it unwarranted.
On November 18, after presiding over a service at the Bulgarian capital city’s Sveta Nedelya Church for the first time in his capacity as acting head of the church and acting Metropolitan of Sofia, Kiril said that a total of 11 metropolitans recognised the legitimacy of his election.
Kiril issued a call for unity, while observers awaited the outcome of a letter sent by the Holy Synod to the three absentee metropolitans calling on them to return to their duties in the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The letter is based on the principle that all metropolitans had taken oaths before Maxim and the Holy Synod always to respond to calls to duty by the Holy Synod, especially for meetings.
A metropolitan who declined to do his duty doomed himself to a fall from grace, Kiril said.
The Holy Synod did not accept being in a period of mourning as a legitimate reason not to attend meetings of the Synod.
Kiril, as quoted by religious news website Dveri, would not comment on whether there would be formal punishment for metropolitans failing to attend Holy Synod meetings or what this punishment could be.
The next meeting of the Holy Synod is scheduled for November 26 to 29 and the winter sessions of the Synod are scheduled to continue until December 19.
On November 14, the Holy Synod said that the deadline for the organisation of the electoral college to choose a new Patriarch would be March 6 2013. Kiril declined to say when the Synod would make a decision on the date of the election, saying that this could happen either in December or in January.
It remains unclear, given that the process appears likely to continue for a number of months, who the official candidates to be Patriarch will be.
Nikolai is disqualified by his age, because he is seven years younger than the minimum for eligibility for election as Patriarch, while Ambrosii of Silistra does not meet the requirement of having been a metropolitan for at least five years. Yoaniki of Sliven has said that he does not want to be a candidate, while Bulgarian-language media said that Vratsa Metropolitan Kalinik also had said that he does not want to be a candidate.
Kalinik was at the centre of controversy in recent days because he announced that he was withdrawing his signature from the minute of the Holy Synod meeting that elected Kiril as acting head of the church. This renders interesting the assertion of Kiril that he has the support of 11 out of the 14 metropolitans, because it implies that Kalinik again has reversed his position, making the Vratsa Metropolitan a sort of one-man swing state.
Where this all matters in the numbers game is that before the electoral college makes its choice, there must be a list of three official candidates – and this list must be approved by a two-third majority of all the members of the Synod. This, in turn, implies that the list must be agreed on by 10 out of 14 metropolitans, and that complicates matters.
First, because it is not clear whether Kiril will be the ultimate candidate of the camp supposedly formed around him (Nikolai has suggested a conspiracy theory that Kiril is only a decoy for the real candidate, who will emerge later). Second, even if Kiril is correct in claiming the endorsement of 11 metropolitans for his temporary leadership of the church, that does not automatically translate into the somewhat more permanent implications of the shortlist of three. Further, at this stage with that choice of three being made out of a theoretical total of 10 (allowing for the two disqualified and the two who have said that they do not want to be candidates), it cannot be forgotten that there are divisions even within the existing working majority. Further still, it remains to be seen to what extent the factors of the controversies about metropolitans who worked for State Security (of the metropolitans qualified to be candidates, only one – Gavril of Lovech – did not ) and metropolitans associated with the Archon controversy will play a role in what lies ahead before a Patriarch is chosen.
It is not impossible, as tends to happen in the politics of a number of churches, that a compromise candidate will be settled on. But with the current open and less visible divisions within the leadership of the church, stated calls for unity seem to be falling on stony ground, and compromise does not seem to be on the agenda – at least, not just yet.
(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)