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The Bulgarian Orthodox Church agreed “to intercede and advocate” for the Macedonian Church in its hopes for canonical independence.
On Monday, November 27, the Bulgarian Patriarch and the diocesan prelates met to discuss their reply to an official letter sent last week from Ochrid.
The letter requested Bulgarian support for the official recognition of the Macedonian Church among other local Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Macedonian Synod has asked the Bulgarian Church to establish “Eucharistic communion with the renewed Ochrid Archbishopric,” asking that that the Macedonian Church would be recognized as autonomous, according to meta.mk. Because of their common historical roots, the Bulgarian Patriarchate has all the canonic reasons to support the Macedonian Church to gain its full position in the Eastern Orthodox family.
After it examined the letter of Arcbishop Stephan of the Macedonian Church, the Bulgarian Synod resolved that, “inasmuch as the Macedonian Church has expressed its willingness to accept the BOC as its Mother Church, the BOC is prepared to intercede and advocate for the Macedonian Church, taking every necessary step to establish its canonicity.”
According to Eastern Orthodox cannons, in order for any national church to receive legitimacy, it needs to be “in Eucharistic communion” with the other 14 autocephalic churches.
Quoting the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “Whenever one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it,” the Bulgarian patriarchate declared that it “has always had compassion for the sufferings of Macedonian Orthodox Church.” The synod appointed a special eight-member committee to start negotiations between the Macedonian Church and the other fourteen local Eastern Orthodox Churches towards the establishment of its canonicity.
The Macedonian Orthodox Church has hoped to receive a recognition for its “autocephaly” (canonical independence) for the past fifty years.
Historically, at the end of 19th century, eastern orthodox churches in the region of Macedonia were part of the Bulgarian Exarchate as it received its own independence from the Greek Church in 1874. After World War I, Vardar Macedonia became part of Serbia, and as a result most of the Bulgarian dioceses in Macedonia were taken over by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
In 1959, the Serbian Church afforded some autonomy to the Macedonian one. Still, it remained in canonical unity with the Serbian Church until 1967. It was then that the Macedonian Church announced its autocephaly. In response, the Serbian Synod condemned this decision as schismatic. Ever since that time, the Macedonian Church has remained unrecognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and all the other autocephalous Orthodox churches. In this way, it is not in communion with any other major Eastern Orthodox church.
In 2009, the Macedonian Orthodox Church added to its name the phrase “Ochrid Archbishopric” and changed its flag and its coat of arms. In doing this, it also declared itself to be the official heir of the previously existing Archbishopric of Ochrid dating back to the 18th century.
COMPLICATED RELIGIOUS CONSIDERATIONS
The negotiations will not be easy at all. For one, there is still no apparent clarity as to whether the Ochrid Archbishopric is heading towards “autocephaly” or “autonomy” (as written in their letter of request to the Bulgarian Patriarchate). In addition, the history of the Balkan Peninsula is one of complicated history full of emotion and nostalgia to previous glory days for every nation.
In order to grant its agreement to advocate the Macedonian cause, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Church had two expectations of its own: That it would be recognized as “Mother Church” by the Macedonian Church; and that the Macedonian Church would not use the term “Ochrid Archbishopric” due to the fact that an existing entity with that name from the 18th century actually predates the autocephaly of the Bulgarian Church itself.
According to experts, the most difficult negotiations will prove to be the ones with the Serbian Orthodox Church, the reason being that half a century ago the Macedonian Church split off from it with a unilateral decision. In an official statement, the Serbian Church expressed “surprise” over the Bulgarian decision to claim to be “church mother” to the Macedonian Church. At this point, the Serbian Church only recognizes one particular Eastern Orthodox organization within the territory of Macedonia, called “Greek Orthodox Ochrid Archbishopric with the Pechka Patriarchy” headed by archbishop Jovan. In order for the Macedonian Church to be accepted within the global family of local orthodox churches, first of all the Serbian Church will have to lift its condemnation of schism.
Most probably, the Russian Orthodox Church will also be reluctant to discuss such a development because of its own complicated relations with the Ukrainian sChurch which has lately expressed hopes to receive a recognition, too. It is also uncertain what reactions would be heard from the Greek Orthodox Church because of Greece’s traditional and historical claim for the name “Macedonia”.
WHAT IS AUTOCEPHALY?
Autocephaly is the canonical term used by Eastern Orthodox churches to define the status of any hierarchical Church whose head does not report to any higher-ranking bishop. When a church council releases an ecclesiastical province from the authority of that bishop (while the new church remains in Eucharistic communion with its mother church to which it ceases to belong), the council grants autocephaly. The meaning of the word autocephaly is “self-headed.”
The issue of who can grant autocephaly is still controversial. For instance, in 1970, the Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephaly by the Russian Orthodox Church, but was not recognized by most patriarchates. In some cases, autocephaly is granted by a mother church; in others it was recognized traditionally; some churches were granted independence by a church council; while still others became autocephalous due to a decision of a state. The Church of Bulgaria, for example, was declared independent in 1872 by a decree of the Ottoman Sultan, creating a canonical mess and a Greek imposed schism (eventually lifted in 1945).
There is an important difference between autocephaly and ethnophyletism (lit., “local tribalism”). The term “ethnophyletism” designates the idea that a local church should be based not on an ecclesial criterion, but on a national or linguistic one, thus creating conflation between church and nation. After the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly by the Sultan, a special synod in Constantinople was summoned in September, 1872, condemning ethnophyletism as a modern ecclesial heresy: the autocephalous Church “should not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race”.
One step short of “autocephaly” is the term “autonomy.” A church that is autonomous has its highest-ranking bishop, such as an archbishop or metropolitan, appointed by the patriarch of the mother church, but is self-governing in all other respects.
WARM POLITICAL RELATIONSHIPS
The Bulgarian Synod’s decision came only days after a meeting between Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, in which it was affirmed that Bulgaria is committed to the deepening of relations with Macedonia. In the meantime, Bulgarian and Macedonian regional leaders and mayors met for a round table discussion in the town of Kuystendil, planning collaboration in the sphere of implementing EU sponsored bilateral projects.
In January, 1992, Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the independence of Macedonia. Besides religious topics, the two countries share much history, culture, ethnical traditions, and language. Despite some arguments on issues of history and identity, there has been a tangible political and social rapprochement between the two countries.