Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch Neofit’s first ‘year of change’

With the election of the Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Bishop Naum, as the new Metropolitan of Rousse – an office made vacant with the February 24 2013 election of then-Metropolitan Neofit as Patriarch – the transition period of Neofit’s ministry came to an end; if you like, his “100 days”, to borrow from the traditions of secular government politics.

In other words, in this way the time from February 24 2013 to March 23 2014 can be seen as Patriarch Neofit’s “first year” in office.

What changes have there been in the life of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in this relatively short period of time?

It was an eventful and significant year in the history of the Bulgarian Church. Not only because of the election of a new Patriarch, not only because of the sudden and mysterious death of the influential Varna Metropolitan Kiril, but also primarily because in this time, processes and phenomena emerged that will have a lasting impact in the future.

Since Neofit was elected Patriarch, he presided over four elections of metropolitans, handed three bishops over to the ecclesiastical court, the government of the country changed twice, the Patriarch was placed in a trio of the secular ranking of “Man of the Year” – in the company of a boxer and a tennis player, and made three visits abroad, one to Moscow and two to Istanbul.

Photo: Vessela Ignatova/patriarsha-bg
Photo: Vessela Ignatova/patriarsha-bg

The year was certainly more dynamic and eventful than the Patriarch may have expected.

Even these dry statistics are indicative of the changing dynamics in Bulgarian church life. Until recently, members of the Holy Synod preferred to leave problems and scandals unanswered, and even created them themselves.

The foreign policy of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not exist, and the position of the Bulgarian church in the debates in the Orthodox world was a real mystery, against a background of the church, in the years of communism, having been seen as one of the closest allies of the Moscow Patriarchate.

At the outset, there was no apparent sign of such dynamics nor of an openness to such issues.

Immediately after the election of Neofit as Patriarch, it became clear that he would not rush to hold elections for a new Metropolitan of Rousse. This was contrary to the statute of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which provides for free elections of a head of a metropolitan diocese no more than three months after the post has fallen vacant.

This seemingly small breach of statute has a precedent in history – Patriarch Kiril, who was elected in 1953 at a time of difficult relations between the Church and the communist state, remained until 1969 also Metropolitan of Plovdiv, thereby insuring himself against possible dismissal from the patriarchal throne – as the statute at the time made possible.

Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer

The memory of this historical precedent and the postponement of the elections of a new Metropolitan of Rousse appeared to confirm fears that members of the Holy Synod would continue to make controversial decisions without considering the sentiments of the faithful and the public . This decision fuelled a host of speculation that could be silenced only by the choice of a new Metropolitan of Rousse.

Immediately after the election of the Patriarch, another trend also became clear, of great expectations that Neofit would impose a sense of a strong institutional centre in church life. His public presence was unobtrusive but visible, shortly after the election , he gave several interviews , including to media critical of the church, and for the first time in years, public speeches by a Bulgarian bishop met with positive comments from the secular media .

The positive impression was reinforced by a lack of ostentation and luxury in the life of the Patriarch, which was received positively by the public, accustomed to the scandals caused by the cars or expensive watches of some bishops .

The balance between these two trends could not continue for too long. The clash between the inertia of the past, when the bishops acted uncontrollably, and some of them even irresponsibly, and the high public expectations of the new Patriarch was inevitable.

The high expectations had been reinforced even by the way in which the Patriarch was elected . These were the first elections of a Patriarch since 1971, and the 2013 vote was preceded by concerns about various behind-the-scenes influences.

Surprisingly to many, then the Church was able to produce a credible election in which the final was between the two most worthy candidates. Many people did not realise it at the time, but the conduct of this election was a turning point, after which church life in Bulgaria could no longer be the same. Elections to the Patriarch showed that the voice of the people is important and even if they try, those who direct things behind the scenes cannot foretell everything that will happen. The elections showed that public opinion matters.

Immediately after the election, the problems that a lack of media attention had made it possible to conceal for years began to emerge.

The first blow was the mysterious drowning of one of the most influential and active bishops – Varna Metropolitan Kiril. The relevant institutions said it was an accident, but the sudden death of an influential bishop in such circumstances could never go without an explosion of conspiracy theories, some of them aired publicly by a voluble clergy.

The death meant the election of a new Bishop of Varna, where the inertia of the past and public expectations collided in a way that brooked no compromise. In November 2013, after a questionable campaign, the diocesan electors fielded as a favourite Bishop Boris, abbot of the great and important Bachkovo monastery, but a cleric who, though far from the public spotlight, was able to set himself against the majority of public opinion.

Laity and priests in Varna reacted sharply and even threatened not to accept the choice. The question was transferred to the Holy Synod , and on its decision rode the future image of the Patriarch – as the guardian of the status quo or agent of change. At that time the forecasts were that the behind-the-scenes puppet-masters would win – it was at the time that the anti-government protests seen as a reaction to these behind-the-scenes dealings were beginning to wear out.

The Holy Synod succeeded in emerging with honour from the situation. The election was revoked, and the matter was referred back to the diocesan electors in Varna. A new metropolitan was elected, Bishop Yoan, long vicar of the Sofia Metropolitan, a bishop with a monastic life beyond reproach and a bishop respected by the laity, who had so distanced himself from church intrigues that before then no one had placed him among the favourites for the rich Varna diocese.

But the scandals continued. A little later came the internet video in which an unsuccessful candidate for Varna Metropolitan, Bishop Boris, was accused of conduct incompatible with the monastic vocation, and even less with episcopal rank. And again, to the surprise of many, the Holy Synod decided that the bishop should be brought before an ecclesiastical court – an institution which in recent decades has been dealing with misconduct of some individual priests, but never with the actions of bishops.

At the same time, two more bishops faced the church court – one also on charges of an immoral lifestyle, and the other as a result of excessive and unbalanced media coverage .

So within just a few months, the Holy Synod gave a strong signal that from now on, the church would not actively ignore public opinion, decided to trust the resurgent local parish structures and showed a desire to tighten the church discipline, not only among ordinary priests and monks but among the bishops . The steps that had been awaited for years, happened in just a few months .

This is the main change brought about in the first year of the ministry of the Patriarch, a change that seems irreversible.

Another change seen in recent months is that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church finally started to abandon its self-imposed isolation in foreign policy. The roots of this isolation are in the years of communism, when the foreign policy of the Bulgarian church was entirely under the control of the Communist-era State Security. The binding isolation occured in the years of schism in the 1990s, when those who had been the most active foreign workers under communism were among the first to dispute the authority of Patriarch Maxim. The need to deal with internal problems and distrust of ecumenical leaders led the Bulgarian church not only out of the World Council of Churches, but also to the practical withdrawal from the dialogue in the Orthodox world .

In the past year, this too began to change. At the end of July 2014, Patriarch Neofit visited Moscow for the celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the conversion of Russia, in September made his first official visit to Istanbul, and in January 2014 took part in the meeting of the heads of the Orthodox Churches, which decided that the Ecumenical Council – awaited for decades – would meet in 2016. It remains to be seen what the position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church will be on the issues that will be debated in the preparations for this event. Among these issues, the most important that is stands out is the granting of autocephalous status – a problem that has gained particular urgency in the context of events in Ukraine, but which is also important for Bulgaria because of disputes over the status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, and which for various reasons affects all Orthodox churches.

The first year of Patriarch Neofit has met and even exceeded expectations for change.

The church heeding public opinion has completely changed the internal dynamics of church life in the country. Recognition of this has been swift – the polls ratings of the Church rose, and with his unobtrusive presence, the Patriarch managed to focus on himself the hopes of many Bulgarians disappointed by politics and a lack of institutions that they trust.

The long-simmering tensions in the Church between the trend towards centralisation and a lack of control of the bishops and the trend towards openness and trusting of wider circles was finally resolved in favour of decentralisation and empowerment of local communities.

This corresponds to a much greater extent to the spirit of Orthodoxy, and the statutes and traditions of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, smothered and suppressed during the years of communism.

In this one year, the Bulgarian Church entered more confidently into a pluralistic environment, which can be expected to become a powerful social corrective – its comments will not be approved by the secular section of Bulgarian society, but at least will be heard with respect instead of with ridicule or even contempt.




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.