After the communications breakdown between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) over the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the issue of consensus in the Orthodox Church was of utmost importance. Moscow and Constantinople were questioned on whether they share the same ecclesiology, but the issue of resolving the schism of the Orthodox Church of North Macedonia (Macedonian church) has just arisen, giving new hope for the future.
Orthodox dioceses in North Macedonia were part of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) until 1967. After the Second World War, the SOC was under the communist regime in Yugoslavia, and it could not act freely due to tremendous repression. During that period, the Orthodox dioceses in the territory of today’s North Macedonia unilaterally declared autocephaly from the SOC and started a schism. Because of that schism, the Macedonian church was for decades isolated and outside unity with all Orthodox churches.
Several times, the SOC, with the blessing of the EP, tried to resolve this schism, but each attempt ended in failure. However, the Synod of the SOC, led by Patriarch Porphyry, met with representatives of the Macedonian Church in Niš (May 6). Only three days later (May 9), the Synod of the EP issued a statement in which they decided to return the Macedonian Church to unity with the EP. The Synod added that it leaves it to the SOC to complete the return of the Macedonian church. Serbian Patriarch Porphyry and Macedonian Archbishop Stefan jointly celebrated the Liturgy of Reconciliation in Belgrade (May 19) and Skopje (May 24). In a sermon at the liturgy in Skopje, Patriarch Porphyry said that the SOC had decided to recognize the autocephalous status of the Macedonian Church. It was announced that Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Stefan will jointly celebrated the Liturgy of Reconciliation on June 12 in Constantinople.
After the SOC acknowledged the Macedonian Church as autocephalous, Archpriest Nikolay Balashov, Deputy President of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, said that ROC, together with its Serb and Macedonian brothers, is looking forward to this happy event because they have been waiting for it for a long time. Other Orthodox churches have not yet commented on the issue. However, the conclusion that can be made is that no one has spoken out in the negative. On the other hand, there are still open questions regarding this autocephaly, and the first question is the formal name of that church.
In its decision to establish unity with the Macedonian Church, the EP stated that it recognizes this church as the Ohrid Archbishopric. However, the Metropolitan of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC), Mr. Gavrilo, stated that it is unacceptable for the BOC to call this church the Ohrid Archbishopric instead of the Macedonian Church. The Metropolitan said that the BOC is the successor of the Ohrid Archbishopric and that the Macedonian Church cannot be given that name. The Metropolitan said that both the BOC and the state should take a clear position on that issue.
With its recognition of the Macedonian Church, the Synod of the EP somewhat prejudged the solution of the issue of the name of this church by already naming it the Ohrid Archbishopric. The Macedonian media view this formal name positively. In fact, the Macedonian Church has so far used the Macedonian Orthodox Church – the Ohrid Archbishopric – as its official name. The SOC and ROC did not speak negatively on this issue. The Synod of the BOC also did not speak negatively regarding the name of this church, so it is possible that it was only the personal position of Metropolitan Gabriel.
In addition to the question of the formal name of the Macedonian Church, there are several other open questions: 1. who will award the Tomos of autocephaly of the Macedonian Church? 2. Whose jurisdictions will include the parishes of the Macedonian Church that are in diaspora (the EP has recognized the jurisdiction of the Ohrid Archbishopric only within the borders of Northern Macedonia)? 3. What will happen to the church structure and bishops of the SOC in the territory of North Macedonia (will they be part of the new autocephalous church)?
These open issues should be resolved between SOC, EP, and Macedonian Church. On the other hand, resolving the schism of the Macedonian Church is perhaps proof that the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is not endangered. Although the issue of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is very complicated and has interrupted the communication between the ROC and EP, resolving the schism in North Macedonia may be an indication that dialogue between the Synod of the SOC and the Macedonian Church can resolve a schism that has lasted for decades. Serbian Bishop Irenaeus Bulovic also said in earlier statements that the SOC is constantly working on an evangelical dialogue with the church in North Macedonia and is trying to resolve the schism with its help. Now, the Synod of the SOC, headed by Patriarch Porphyry, has shown that such a dialogue can be used to resolve the schism.
Perhaps by resolving the schism in North Macedonia, the SOC has just shown that Orthodox ecclesiology still lives firmly in the Church, even though it may have been endangered in Ukraine. Both the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchates have shown agreement with the Serbian Patriarchate’s efforts to resolve the schism, and thus both Moscow and Constantinople have shown that they continue to share the same ecclesiological spirit and the same pastoral care for the Orthodox universe. This fact instills hope that there is a consensus on ecclesiological issues in the Orthodox Church and that both the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople share it, and that the SOC manifested it by resolving the 55-year schism through dialogue.
Marko Pavlović is a graduate student in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KU Leuven. He holds masters degrees in Orthodox Theology and Law from the University of Belgrade, and he works as an analyst for the European Academy on Religion and Society.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.