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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 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:

  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.

*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).



  1. Thank you for this very helpful background to the Council of 1872. Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese has often raised this issue in the past, asking “Why is a heresy in 1872 no longer a heresy today?” I think we would find with a careful study that the Council of 1872 was not very successful in putting down the heresy, and that there were many instances of ethno-phyletism being tolerated on a smaller scale prior to 1922. That means that this heresy may be close to surpassing iconoclasm as the longest running heresy in the history of the Orthodox Church – a dubious honor, to be sure.

    Cal Oren

  2. Timothy (Seraphim) Kulikowski on

    This essay is strikingly concise & clear. May it provoke much thought & discussion. I have one word for Father Stephane: AXIOS!

  3. It has been a while since this essay was published, but I would like add following comments to the record.

    1. The historical background goes back to the formation of the first Bulgarian Autocephalous Church during the reign of Tsar and Saint Boris. The following Wikipedia account conforms to the sources that I have read. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulgarian_Orthodox_Church#Early_Christianity

    “Boris I believed that cultural advancement and the sovereignty and prestige of a Christian Bulgaria could be achieved through an enlightened clergy governed by an autocephalous church. To this end, he manoeuvred between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Roman Pope for a period of five years until in 870 AD, the Fourth Council of Constantinople granted the Bulgarians an autonomous Bulgarian archbishopric. The archbishopric had its seat in the Bulgarian capital of Pliska and its diocese covered the whole territory of the Bulgarian state. The tug-of-war between Rome and Constantinople was resolved by putting the Bulgarian archbishopric under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, from whom it obtained its first primate, its clergy and theological books.

    Although the archbishopric enjoyed full internal autonomy, the goals of Boris I were scarcely fulfilled. A Greek liturgy offered by a Byzantine clergy furthered neither the cultural development of the Bulgarians, nor the consolidation of the Bulgarian state; it would have eventually resulted in the loss of both the identity of the people and the statehood of Bulgaria. Thus, Boris I greeted the arrival of the disciples of the Saints Cyril and Methodius in 886 as an opportunity. Boris I gave them the task to instruct the future Bulgarian clergy in the Glagolitic alphabet and the Slavonic liturgy prepared by Cyril. The liturgy was based on the vernacular of the Macedonian Slavs from the region of Thessaloniki. In 893, Boris I expelled the Greek clergy from the country and ordered the replacing of the Greek language with the Slav-Bulgarian vernacular.

    Following Bulgaria’s two decisive victories over the Byzantines at Acheloos (near the present-day city of Pomorie) and Katasyrtai (near Constantinople), the government declared the autonomous Bulgarian Archbishopric as autocephalous and elevated it to the rank of Patriarchate at an ecclesiastical and national council held in 919. After Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire signed a peace treaty in 927 that concluded the 20-year-long war between them, the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognised the autocephalous status of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and acknowledged its patriarchal dignity.[1][2] The Bulgarian Patriarchate was the first autocephalous Slavic Orthodox Church, preceding the autocephaly of the Serbian Orthodox Church (1219) by 300 years and of the Russian Orthodox Church (1596) by some 600 years. It was the sixth Patriarchate after Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. ”

    2. Regarding the establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate, the reason was the same as the one that drove them 1,000 years earlier: the Bulgarians wanted to have the services conducted in the vernacular. The Phanariots did not.

    “There were martyrs to the Church as many districts and almost all larger towns in the Bulgarian provinces of the Ottoman Empire were subjected to forceful conversion to Islam as early as the first years after the conquest. St. George of Kratovo[disambiguation needed] (+1515), St. Nicholas of Sofia (+1515), Bishop Vissarion of Smolen (+1670), Damaskin of Gabrovo (+1771), St. Zlata of Muglen (+1795), St. John the Bulgarian (+1814), St. Ignatius of Stara Zagora (+1814), St. Onouphry of Gabrovo (+1818) and many others perished defending their faith. After many of the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were executed, it was fully subordinated to the Patriarch of Constantinople. The millet system in the Ottoman Empire granted a number of important civil and judicial functions to the Patriarch of Constantinople and the diocesan metropolitans. As the higher Bulgarian church clerics were replaced by Greek ones at the beginning of the Ottoman domination, the Bulgarian population was subjected to double oppression – political by the Ottomans and cultural by the Greek clergy. With the rise of Greek nationalism in the second half of the 18th century, the clergy imposed the Greek language and a Greek consciousness on the emerging Bulgarian bourgeoisie. The Patriarchate of Constantinople became its tool to assimilate other peoples. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the clergy opened numerous schools with all-round Greek language curriculum and nearly banned the Bulgarian liturgy. These actions threatened the survival of the Bulgarians as a separate nation and people with its own, distinct national culture.” (Source Wikipedia article cited above)

    3. The situation at the 1872 Council was quite illuminating. The establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate was accompanied by referanda conducted in the Ottomon Empire. Here is how the local Christian Orthodox folks identified themselves:

    “The Ottoman government restored the Bulgarian Patriarchate under the name of “Bulgarian Exarchate” by a decree (firman) of the Sultan promulgated on February 28, 1870. The original Exarchate extended over present-day northern Bulgaria (Moesia), Thrace without the Vilayet of Adrianople, as well as over north-eastern Macedonia. After the Christian population of the bishoprics of Skopje and Ohrid voted in 1874 overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Exarchate (Skopje by 91%, Ohrid by 97%), the Bulgarian Exarchate became in control of the whole of Vardar and Pirin Macedonia. The Bulgarian Exarchate was partially represented in southern Macedonia and the Vilayet of Adrianople by vicars. Thus, the borders of the Exarchate included all Bulgarian districts in the Ottoman Empire…On the eve of the Balkan Wars, in Macedonia and the Adrianople Vilayet, the Bulgarian Exarchate had seven dioceses with prelates and eight more with acting chairmen in charge and 38 vicariates; 1,218 parishes and 1,212 parish priests; 64 monasteries and 202 chapels; as well as of 1,373 schools with 2,266 teachers and 78,854 pupils.” (Source Wikipedia article cited above)

    4. The composition of the 1872 Council was also illuminating: Patriarch Anthimus VI of Constantinople, Patriarch Sophronius IV of Alexandria (served as Sophronius III, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 1863 to 1866, and as Sophronius IV the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria until 1899), and Patriarch Procopius II of Jerusalem–all Greeks.

    If I may be permitted a personal opinion, I agree that phyletism is not a good thing but I point to Constantinople’s ethnic egoism as the root cause in the establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate. If Constantinople had followed Scriptural and Apostolic practice, the faith would have been proclaimed and services served in the vernacular from the very start. By insisting on Greek language and services, Constantinople in a perverse way was the first and foremost practitioner of this heresy. Thus, I find the 1872 Council to be morally flawed if not doctrinally sound.

  4. Thank you, Mr. Kraeff, for your additional historical context and comments. As to your conclusion, I would assume you mean that 1872 Council came to the right conclusion, but without properly acknowledging the in-authentic practices of “ethnic egoism” that gave rise to the Bulgarian situation they were condemning, and without taking steps to stop it. Now we see that it has not abated in the ensuing 140 years because only the symptoms and not the root causes were addressed.

  5. EVAN A. CHRISS on

    A recent example of ethno-phyletism as promoted by The National Herald was its vitiololic editorial on May 25, 2013 entitled”NOT EVEN THE GREEK FLAG”
    concerning the fact that the Greek flag was not being displayed at The Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral “Holy Trinity”. I responded thereto on June 2, 2013 by a letter to the editor which the National Hearls has seen fit not to publish. My letter was as follows:

    ” The Editor
    English Section
    The National Herald

    Dear Sir:

    I write to reply to your irresponsible and unnecessarily vitriolic editorial in the May 25 edition entitled “Not Even The Greek Flag ? ” .

    In support of your belief that a Greek Orthodox Church in the United States must regularly fly the Greek Flag along with the American and Patriarchal flags, you make a number of misleading, derogatory and pejorative allegations. I will refer to only three.

    1, As Fr. George Stephanopoulos states in his article concerning the name of the Greek Orthodox Church “… The word “Greek” is not used to describe just the Orthodox Christian peoples of Greece and other Greek speaking people. Rather, it is used to describe the Christians who originated from the Greek speaking early Christian Church …..”.Furthermore, in your editorial in the June 22, 2002 National Herald , you acknowledged that the word ” Greek:” in “Greek Orthodox” does not refer to Greek ethnicity . Nevertheless, with obvious intent to mislead, you sarcastically state: “Our church continues, if we are not mistaken , to be called the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America “.

    2. It is most irresponsible for you to declare , with obvious inflammatory intent , that those who do not support regularly flying of the Greek flag by Greek Orthodox Churches in the United States ” do not respect ourselves” and ” do not appreciate the treasure of Hellenism and Orthodoxy that we have in our hands”, and that by not flying the Greek flag we “cut ourselves off from our roots” , ” renounce our ancestors, the pioneer immigrants who built theses churches” and are “actually renouncing ourselves”. What ridiculous and insupportable assertions !!

    3. By far the worst passage in your irrational editorial is your calumnious characterization of any Greek Orthodox Church which does not regularly fly the Greek flag as: “.. Just one of those churches springing up here and there every day from various charlatans who exploit innocent people ?…”. How in the world can you make such an outlandish charge?

    Christ’s Holy and Apostolic Church cannot be identified with any particular culture or ethnic group (Greek or otherwise) unless it is reduced from being the Body of Christ to a mere human institution. The Greek Orthodox Church has always been a people’s church , an indigenous church, with deep roots in the cultural and ethnic identity of the lands in which it is found. However, the Church’s mission and responsibility is to bring Christ’s message to all men. It cannot be limited to or identified to any one ethnic or cultural group. In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew.The Orthodox Church exists beyond nations and ethnicities. That this is why the Orthodox Churches cannot be considered as bastions of any particular culture or ethnicity.

    The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, is a Greek Orthodox Church in the United States.. It is an eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate . It is not an eparchy of the Greek Orthodox Church of Greece. Its communicants are Greek Orthodox Americans ( many in the fifth generation) and not Greeks who happen to live in America temporarily while they wait to return to Greece. Accordingly, there is no valid reason for Greek Orthodox Churches in America to fly the Greek Flag on a regular basis. with the flags of the Patriarchate and the United States. On special occasions such as the observance of Greek Independence Day on March 25 and OCHI day on October 28 when we remember and commemorate the memory and sacrifices of our brave Greek forefathers, brothers and sisters, in their struggle for Orthodoxy, freedom and liberty, the flying of the Greek Flag is not only appropriate, it is an HONOR.

    Very truly yours,

    Evan Alevizatos Chriss
    1055 W. Joppa Rd. Apt 345
    Baltimore, MD. 21204-3774″

    Evan Alevizatos Chriss

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