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 precedent.*
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 1860’s, 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 condemned 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 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:
- The Patriarch followed the solid, canonical, and ecclesiological Tradition by refusing to sanction the overlap of two jurisdictions based on ethnic identity.
- 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.
- 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.
*Maxime de Sardes, Le Patriarcat œcuménique dans l’Église orthodoxe, Paris, Éditions Beauchesne, 1975, p. 378.
Rev. Fr. Stephane Bigham is a lecturer at the Faculty of Theology, Ethics and Philosophy at the University of Sherbrooke (Quebec) in Orthodox theology. About Fr. Stéphane Bigham (in French).