The 1872 Council of Constantinople and Phyletism

I. The Definition

Phyletism is the name of an ecclesiological heresy which says that the Church can be territorially organized on an ethnic, racial, or cultural basis so that within a given geographic territory, there can exist several Church jurisdictions, directing their pastoral care only to the members of specific ethnic groups. A Church council in 1872 officially defined and condemned this heresy. It reacted to a proposition made by Bulgarians of the Patriarchate of Constantinople who wanted to establish a Church jurisdiction, sanctioned by the Turkish government, on the territory of the patriarchate:

The formation in the same place of a particular [local] Church based on race which only receives faithful of that same ethnic group and is run by pastors of only of the same ethnic group, as the adherents of Phyletism claim, is an event without precedent1.

II. The Historical Context before the Council

To understand why in the middle of the 19th century the Bulgarians of the Ottoman Empire asked to have an ethnic jurisdiction within the Patriarchate of Constantinople, we have to go back in history to the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries to see the forces that were at work both inside and outside the Empire. It was these forces that inspired the Bulgarian request. The political philosophies of the American and French Revolutions seeped into Turkish-controlled areas and stimulated the conquered, minority peoples to dream about getting free from the Turkish yoke and creating their own national states. All the revolts of the peoples subject to the Turks lived and breathed the idea of a national state. Many among them remembered that they had already had their own empires and kingdoms and burned to restore past glories at the expense of the dying Ottoman Empire.

Alongside this dream of political and cultural hegemony, there was also a growing hope of being free from the Patriarch of Constantinople and forming their own autonomous or independent Church. Most of the non-Greek, Orthodox ethnic groups felt doubly dominated by foreigners: politically by the Turks and ecclesiastically by the Phanariots, that is the Greek aristocracy of Constantinople, rich and cultivated living in the Phanar quarter and having privileged relations with the sultan. Greek bishops governed dioceses whose faithful were not Greek and thus promoted a cultural and linguistic policy of Hellenization. In the minds of these non-Greeks, it was not possible to separate the two ideas: political independence from Turkey and a national Church using the national language.

Greeks themselves were the first to defy the sultan and to successfully revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. From the beginning, they established political and ecclesiastical independence from Constantinople. For the Orthodox Christian minorities of the Empire, the Church was the only structure capable of uniting the various groups. It was natural therefore that the leadership of the Greek revolt and cultural renewal should come for the most part from the Orthodox Church. This was equally true for the subsequent revolts and renewals among the other Orthodox ethnic groups. The success of the Greeks, with the help of the British, French, and Russians, served as a model for the other Balkan peoples. Greek national passions were inflamed to such a point that once political independence was won, a national Church, free from Constantinople, was an absolute necessity, with or without the approval of the Patriarch. It was obviously preferable to proceed with his blessing, but if he was opposed, the Greeks would simply defy him. And if the Greeks could do it, why not others?

III. The Bulgarian Exarchate

Other ethnic groups did indeed follow the Greek model and established their own national Churches and States, but in the case of Greece, Serbia, and Romania, the creation and recognition of the national, territorial Churches did not violate the ecclesiological principle of one bishop for one Church in one particular geographical territory. It was not very important that the geographical territory of the new Churches more or less coincided with the demography of the three peoples. Since one Church incorporates all the Orthodox Christians in a particular place, the theology of the Church was reflected in the organizational structure of the new Churches.

The Bulgarian case, however, was different from the three preceding ones because the Bulgarians were the last Balkan people to arouse their national conscience and to free themselves from the Turks, excluding the case of little Albania. Greece, Serbia, and Romania had been on the outer limits of the Ottoman Empire; the authorities in Constantinople had great difficulty “pacifying” these regions. The Bulgarian people, however, were close to the capital, Constantinople, and this retarded the renewal of the Bulgarian national sentiment. In addition, the Bulgarians were more dispersed throughout the Empire, less concentrated, except in Constantinople, where there was a strong Bulgarian minority. Nonetheless, Bulgarian nationalism was reborn and took several forms: some more radical, others less. During the 1860s, various Bulgarian groups negotiated with the sultan and the Patriarch for the creation of an autonomous Bulgarian Church. Several rival groups proposed projects, but when the negotiations between the Bulgarian groups and the Patriarch became deadlocked, the sultan unilaterally intervened in February 1870 and established a Bulgarian Exarchate for most of the areas where Bulgarians lived. The new exarch was more or less under the Patriarch’s authority and had to commemorate him in the liturgy and to receive from him the holy chrism, but the relations between the two Church leaders remained ambiguous. The fact that the exarch lived near Constantinople did not help to solve the problem. The jurisdictions of the Exarch and the Patriarch overlapped, and this situation violated the principle of one bishop for one specific territory. The Patriarch could only reject this solution as a violation of the Church’s canonical order. What is more, he could not accept the Turkish government’s interference in the internal affairs of the patriarchate.

In February 1872, a council of Bulgarian laymen and clerics elected Bishop Antime, metropolitan of Vidine, as the first exarch. After being confirmed by the Sultan, he became the Bulgarian leader. Thus what had existed only in theory since 1870 suddenly became a very concrete reality when Bishop Antime declared the Bulgarian Church to be independent of Constantinople. A council in Constantinople immediately deposed him and reduced him to lay status, and the Bulgarian schism began.

IV. The Patriarch’s Reaction

To have as wide a discussion as possible of the Bulgarian Church question, the Patriarch convoked a general council of the Church for September 1872. For various reasons, not all the local Orthodox Churches attended, but those who did condemn Phyletism as an ecclesiological heresy. They also declared the Bulgarian Church to be in schism. This rupture was to last until 1945 when the Bulgarian Church became independent in accordance with the principle of territorial autocephaly: one bishop for all the Orthodox Christians in a given geographical region. In 1945, after two world wars, most Bulgarians lived within Bulgaria. Thus the Patriarch and the Bulgarians were able to heal the schism and to maintain their principles: for the Bulgarians, an autocephaly Church; for the Patriarch, one bishop for one territory.

At the time of the 1872 council, the Orthodox world reacted differently to the problem, as we see from the fact that certain Churches refused to attend. Most of the Greek Churches broke off contact with the Bulgarian Church. The other Churches, however, maintained friendly relations but did not concelebrate the sacraments with the new Church since it had been formally excommunicated.

How can we analyze the Patriarch’s reaction to the Bulgarian crisis? Here are three points.

1. The Patriarch followed the solid, canonical, and ecclesiological Tradition by refusing to sanction the overlap of two jurisdictions based on ethnic identity.

2. He was also right in refusing to create an exarchate imposed by the Turkish government, an obvious interference in the Church’s internal affairs. Such a refusal seems all the more surprising because the Patriarch was very accustomed to accepting governmental measures in the Church. This incident shows, on the other hand, that there were limits to such interference. The Patriarch could not accept just anything especially when a fundamental, ecclesiological principle was at stake.

3. We can blame the Patriarch and his predecessors for following a Hellenization policy in non-Greek areas and for reacting so slowly, too little too late, to the crisis that was brewing. If the two sides, the Bulgarians and the Patriarch, had sought a solution right from the beginning of the national Bulgarian cultural renewal, when both were less allergic to compromise, they could probably have avoided the tragedy of schism. On the other hand, it is possible that the dynamic of the two groups was such that no compromise was possible. Only the concentration of the Bulgarian population inside Bulgaria during the 73 years following 1872 and the cooling of passions during this period allowed the healing of the schism. As for the Bulgarians, they were not wrong in wanting “their own” autocephaly Church, which had already existed in the past, but their patriotic fervor inflamed them to such an extent that they forgot an important ecclesiological principle.

The encyclical letter of the 1872 council is an eloquent expression of the Scriptures, the canons, and Tradition on how the Church is to be organized. The creation of such a document follows the best tradition of dogmatic declarations: the Church lives according to the mystery of salvation until a challenge is met, one that forces the Church to set verbal and conceptual boundaries around the mystery to protect it from corruption. It is easy to see how the Church is reticent to dogmatize about salvation in words and concepts: it prefers to live rather than rationally analyze the mystery. Nonetheless, the 1872 declaration exists and represents an important theological affirmation about an element of the Church’s nature. Even though we can evaluate the authority of the 1872 council in different ways, the theological content is certainly “an article of faith” and merits a larger conciliar development, one that will have more authority.

V. The Aftermath

The history of Phyletism and the Bulgarian schism, although very sad, has a great significance today, especially for the diaspora. In 1872, the Orthodox diaspora did not exist as an organized entity: at most, we can say that it had only just begun, except in North America where canonical authority was exercised by the bishop of the missionary diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the time, there were no hidden interests that clouded the question of the Church’s organization. The Patriarch’s condemnation of Phyletism is based only on his loyalty to the canonical and theological tradition of the Church, nothing more. As we have said above, we should heartily applaud him for having courageously maintained the faith in a moment of crisis.

In 1922, however, fifty years later, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the successor of the Patriarch who condemned Phyletism in 1872, himself violated the organizational principle of the Church by establishing an ethnic, Greek jurisdiction for the Americas; there is no lack of irony here. By this action, Constantinople opened the flood gates to Phyletism so that nearly all the national autocephaly Churches created dioceses for “their own” in the Americas and in Western Europe. What happened that allowed Constantinople to correctly proclaim Orthodoxy in 1872 but in 1922 to become the main instigator of betraying that Orthodoxy on the ecclesiological level? Obviously exterior factors and hidden motives contributed to the introduction and promotion what had been condemned just fifty years before.

Nonetheless, the condemnation of Phyletism by the 1872 Council of Constantinople and the affirmation of the ecclesiological principle, “one bishop for a given territory,” remains for us in the diaspora, a lighthouse of Orthodoxy, and by that light we can judge our own faithfulness to the Church’s holy Tradition.

The American Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events of the year 1872, vol. XII, New York, 1873, “Eastern Churches,” pp. 270-271.

The Bulgarian question which has been agitating the Greek Church for so many years reached a crisis in 1872. A new conflict between the Bulgarians and the Patriarch arose at the festival of Epiphany, 1872, when three Bulgarian bishops in order to show their independence, celebrated mass (sic), in spite of the prohibition of the Patriarch, in the Bulgarian church of Constantinople. The Patriarch, on the next day, made a full report of the occurrence to the Turkish Government, which exiled the three bishops. He also called a meeting of the National Council, to which he explained the facts in the case and read the report. The council resolved to publish a proclamation to the nation, and to distribute it all over the country. The Bulgarians were not agreed as to the best course to adopt. The party of “Young Bulgarians” insisted on the immediate rupture of all negations with the patriarchate, and applied to the Porte for the appointment of a Bulgarian Exarchate. The moderate party lamented the acts of the three bishops and demanded the continuation of the negotiations with the Patriarch. The Turkish Government was, however, soon prevailed upon once more to take sides with the Bulgarians. On Feb 24, 1872, a decree of the Grand-Vizier proclaimed that the Government in view of the efforts of the Patriarch to bring on a split between the Greek and Bulgarian populations which the Porte had endeavored to prevent, would now establish the Bulgarian Exarchate in accordance with the imperial firman. The responsibility for the measure would wholly rest with the patriarchate, by which it had been provoked. Three prelates were recommended for the position : Pasios, Anthimos, Metropolitan of Widdin, and Hilarion, Bishop of Toocha. The Bulgarian Council elected Hilarion; but his election was not confirmed, as the Patriarch would not admit to the dignity of Exarch a priest who had repeatedly been censured for his liberal opinions, and had been twice excommunicated. It was then decided to elect the more moderate Metropolitan Anthimos of Widdin. The new exarch had received his theological education in the seminary of the South Russian island of Chalka, and subsequently in Moscow. He had then been for several years a teacher at the Seminary of Chalka, and in 1861 had been appointed Metropolitan of Shulman; but as the Bulgarians, even at that time, were unwilling to recognize the bishops appointed by the Patriarch, he had not entered upon the administration of his diocese. In 1867, he was elected Metropolitan of Widdin, and fully supported the movement for the establishment of the National Bulgarian Church. After being elected Exarch, Anthimos at once made strenuous efforts to bring about an understanding with the Patriarch. The latter replied that he would give a respite of forty days, after the lapse of which the exarch must return to the orthodox Church, and during which he must abstain from exercising any episcopal function, under penalty of the censures of the Church. The exarch, indeed, abstained for a time from all ecclesiastical functions, although the Passover of the Greek Church took place within this period. But, in the latter part of May, he yielded to the pressure brought upon him by the leaders of the national Bulgarian party, and solemnly released the three excommunicated Bulgarian bishops from the excommunication. This induced the Patriarch to convoke a meeting of his synod and of prominent laymen, which declared the negotiations with the Bulgarians to be at an end, and Anthimos to have incurred the canonical censures. On the other side, the Exarch on May 24th, left out in the liturgy the prescribed mention of the Patriarch and substituted for it the words “the orthodox episcopate,” which immediately called forth the reading of a pastoral letter by the Patriarch, excommunicating Anthimos, and pronouncing the great anathema against the three Bulgarian bishops. Notwithstanding these measures, the Bulgarian Church consolidated itself more and more. The exarch soon consecrated a new bishop, and at Wodina, in Macedonia, the Bulgarians expelled the Greek bishop, and declared that, in accordance with Art. X of the firman establishing the Bulgarian Exarchate (by which article it is provided that two thirds of the inhabitants of a diocese have the power of demanding the connection of the diocese with the Exarchate), they would join the Bulgarian Church. On September 10th, the “Greek Synod” of the Church met in Constantinople. All the patriarchs and twenty-five archbishops and bishops were present. The synod soon declared “phyletism,” that is, the distinction of races and nationalities within the Church of God, as contrary to the doctrine of the Church of God, as contrary to the doctrine of the gospel and of the Fathers, and excluded six Bulgarian bishops and all connected with the Exarchate from the Church. All the bishops signed the decree except the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who left the synod before its close, and was, therefore, insulted by the Greek population of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, who received him with shouts of “Traitor” “Muscovite!” etc. The following is a liberal translation of the decree of excommunication, which will forever remain an important document in the annals of the Greek Church :

Decree of the Holy and Great and Council, assembled at Constantinople in the month of December, in the year of grace 1872. The Apostle Paul has commanded us to take heed to ourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made us overseers, to govern the Church of God, which He had purchased with His own blood; and has at the same time predicted that grievous wolves shall enter among us, not sparing the flock, and that of our own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them; and he has warned us to beware of such. We have learned with astonishment and pain that such men have lately appeared among the Bulgarian people within the jurisdiction of the Holy Ecumenical Throne. They have dared to introduce into the Church the idea of phyletism, or the National Church, which is of the temporal life, and have established in contempt of the sacred canons, an unauthorized and unprecedented Church Assembly, based upon the principle of the difference of races. Being inspired in the accordance with our duty, by zeal for God and the wish to protect the pious Bulgarian people against the spread of the evil, we have met in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ. Having first besought from the depths of our hearts the grace of the Father of light, and consulted the Gospel of Christ, in which all treasures of wisdom are hidden, and having examined the principles of phyletism with reference to the precepts of the Gospel and the temporal constitutions of the Church of God, we have found it not only foreign, but in enmity to them and have perceived that the unlawful acts committed by the aforesaid phyletismal assembly, as they were severally recited to us, are one and all condemned. Therefore, in view of the sacred canons, whose rulings are hereby confirmed in their whole compass; in view of the teaching of the apostles, through whom the Holy Ghost has spoken; in view of the decrees of the seven Ecumenical Councils, and of all the local councils; in view of the definitions of the Fathers of the Church, we ordain as follows :

  1. Article I. We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers, the doctrine of phyletism, or of the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.
  2. Article II. We declare the adherents of phyletism, who have had the boldness to set up an unlawful, unprecedented Church assembly upon such a principle, to be foreign and absolutely schismatic, to the only holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They are and remain, therefore, schismatic and foreign to the orthodox church, the following lawless men who have, of their own free-will, separated themselves from it, namely (names) Gennadios, ex Metropolitan of Melissa, before deposed and excommunicated; together with all who have been ordained by them to be archbishops, priests, and deacons; all persons, spiritual and worldly, who are in communion with them; all who act in cooperation with them; and all who accept as lawful and canonical their unholy blessings and ceremonies of worship. While we pronounce this synodal decision, we pray to the God of mercy, our Lord Jesus Christ, the head and founder of our faith, that He will preserve His holy Church from all dangerous new doctrines, and that He will keep it pure, spotless, and fast on the foundations of the apostles and the prophets. We pray Him to grant the grace of repentance to those who have separated themselves from her, and have founded their unauthorized Church assembly upon the principles of phyletism, so that they may someday nullify their acts, and return to the only holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, in order, with all the orthodox, to praise God, who came upon the earth to bring peace and good will to all men. He it is whom we shall honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, to the end of time. Amen.

The decree is signed by (names) and by 25 metropolitans and bishops. The refusal of the Patriarch of Jerusalem to sign the decree was not approved by his clergy, for the provincial Synod of Jerusalem not only endorsed the excommunication of the Bulgarians but demanded the deposition of their patriarch, who was looked upon as a schismatic. In November, the Patriarch of Constantinople prevailed upon the Turkish Government to ask the Bulgarian Exarchate to make propositions with regard to a change in the clerical dress of the Bulgarian clergy, so as to distinguish them from those in ecclesiastical communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople. The exarch was afraid that the abandonment of a dress which the mass of the people looked upon as an integral part of the clerical dignity might be injurious to the interests of the Bulgarian Church, and he therefore refused to make the demanded proposition.

1Maxime de Sardes, Le Patriarcat œcuménique dans l’Église orthodoxe, Paris, Éditions Beauchesne, 1975, p. 378.

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