Crisis in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Sobornost or Authoritarianism?

Published on: April 29, 2024
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March 12, 2024: Priests gather in protest against the decision of the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Photo credit: Polina Spirova
March 12, 2024: Priests gather in protest against the decision of the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Photo credit: Polina Spirova

In the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC), elections are taking place: in the coming months the metropolitan of one of the largest seaside dioceses, Sliven, and then the Bulgarian patriarch, will be elected.

Of course, the election of a diocesan bishop cannot be called a unique event in the life of the BOC, but this time the election has led to a serious crisis that has raised an important ecclesiastical question about the participation of the clergy and laity in the life of the Church. Undoubtedly, the elections of the patriarch, scheduled for June, will also take place in the context of this crisis.

What caused the crisis?

The procedure for the election of the metropolitan of the BOC involves not only the representatives of the high clergy but also priests and laypeople. The first stage is that the Holy Synod provides diocesan electors (clergy and laity) with a list of approved candidates for the vacant metropolitan see. The electors, by secret ballot, choose the two candidates with a majority of votes. A week later, the second stage takes place when the members of the Synod elect one of the two bishops as the new metropolitan.

The participation of clergy and people in the election of bishops to metropolitan sees dates back to the restoration of the Bulgarian Church at the end of the 19th century. At that time, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the struggle for national liberation was closely linked to the struggle for an independent Church. The re-establishment and consolidation of the Bulgarian Exarchate was then a common labor of clergy and laity, and from that time the Statutes of the Bulgarian Church adopted the principles of their active participation in the matters of the Church.

The crisis that arose earlier this year in the election of the Sliven metropolitan was provoked by an attempt to exclude the participation of the clergy and laity from the voting and thus leave the decisions on new appointments entirely in the authority of the metropolitans. In February of this year, a week after the vote, the Holy Synod did not approve the diocesan choice of the two candidates and did not recognize the first stage of the election without mentioning any specific violations of procedure. Unofficial sources made it clear that the Synod did not like either of the two selected candidates—neither Bishop Ierofei of Agatopolis (former vicar of Sliven Metropolitan Ioannikios) nor Bishop Michael of Constantia.

The idea that diocesan voters do not have necessary qualifications to make the right choice and that only the members of the Synod themselves can do the job adequately has been unofficially pushed through. Therefore, at the same meeting at which the results of the diocesan election were canceled, a Resolution was adopted to amend the procedure for the election of a metropolitan in the BOC. The resolution abolished the first stage of the election and established a new procedure according to which the election of the metropolitan would be conducted only by members of the Holy Synod. Nine of the twelve members present voted in favor of the resolution, four were against it, and the vote took place in the absence of Bulgarian Patriarch Neophytos. And immediately the date was set for the election of the Sliven metropolitan according to the new regulations.

This decision was unprecedented in the recent history of the BOC, and it is no coincidence that it was regarded as a suspension of the BOC Statute in its main part concerning the election of a metropolitan. Such major changes to the Statute can only be adopted by the Church Council, the highest legislative body of the BOC, which also includes bishops, clergy and laity. According to the Statute, the Church Council should be held every four years, but the last time it was held was 16 years ago in December 2008.


The attempt to exclude the clergy and laity from the electoral process in the Church provoked a vigorous reaction from church community that surprised members of the Synod.

The electors from Sliven immediately expressed their dissatisfaction with the fact that the results of the elections were canceled, despite the fact that they were held in full compliance with all the regulations under the supervision of Metropolitan John, the temporary administrator of the diocese from Varna and Velikopreslavl. The protest against the actions of the Synod united the clergy and laity, and the collection of signatures against the cancelation of the elections and against the Resolution which provided for their abolition began. Signatures were collected everywhere: in towns and villages, not only in churches, but also in stores, libraries, and even in the streets. This also attracted the attention of local authorities, who spoke out in support of their citizens.

The wave of discontent quickly spread to all dioceses and the country as a whole. The attempt to change one of the basic principles of the BOC Statute—the participation of the people of God in the governance of the Church—united “conservatives” and “liberals,” “Russophiles” and “Russophobes,” people who make up the entire social spectrum, even though they hold opposing ideological viewpoints. Complaints and appeals were filed to all state institutions: parliament, government, presidential administration. These complaints called on the whole state to react to the situation, as the violation of the BOC Statute by its supreme governing body is a matter of national importance.

The Minister of Justice made public his opinion that “the proposed ad hoc changes to the electoral system have the potential to spark divisions and disputes and will ultimately have negative consequences for both the BOC and the faithful.” Such unanimity, which is not usually seen in the sharply polarized Bulgarian society, clearly marked a red line that should not be crossed.

At the same time, three metropolitans published the so-called Special Opinions, which presented arguments against the adoption of the above-mentioned Resolution on the annulment of the first stage of elections. These were Metropolitan Gavriil of Lovchansk, Daniel of Vidin, and Seraphim of Nevrokopsk. They were later joined by Metropolitan Joseph of the USA, Canada, and Australia.

Lawyers and experts in canon law published in the media and social networks their analyses, opinions, and comments on the Synod’s proposed Resolution to change the order of election of the metropolitan. The conclusions were that it contradicts the canons of the Orthodox Church, the principles and spirit of the Statute of the BOC, and with its adoption violates the precepts of the figures of the Bulgarian National Revival of the 19th century, who fought for the independence of the Bulgarian Church.

The massive public outcry forced the Synod to change its position. First, Metropolitan John of Varna, the Locum Tenens of the Diocese of Sliven, under whose leadership the diocesan elections were held, withdrew his signature to the text of the Resolution. In his statement, he cited as the main reason the unanimous opposition of the clergy and laity of his own diocese, with whom he had held several meetings at their insistence: “The laity and priests are deeply saddened by the fact that they have been excluded from the right to vote in the selection of a new metropolitan…The disappointment and pain of all is due to the fact that our signature is on the letter where this Resolution was proposed.”

After these events, at the meeting on March 12, when it was initially expected that the Synod would elect the metropolitan according to the new regulations, the bishops expectedly voted to cancel the controversial Resolution. The decision to cancel the results of the diocesan elections nevertheless remained in force, thus the procedure for the election of the Sliven metropolitan was re-launched again.

Protest and counter-protest

During the synodal session on March 12, in front of the Synod building, in the very center of the Bulgarian capital, priests gathered—some of them in protest and others in a counter-protest, which was essentially an opposition to the majority of the faithful. This was an unprecedented picture—priests and laity protesting in front of the Synod and a police cordon separating them into two groups—vividly illustrating the deep crisis of the BOC.

One part of the protesters were clergymen and laymen of the Sliven Diocese, joined by representatives of the Neurokopa, Vidin, Sofia, and other regions. They protested both against the abolition of the first stage of the elections and against the controversial Resolution.

On the other side of the “barricade” was the counter-protest, where there were priests and laity, nuns and ministers of the Plovdiv diocese, who were brought to Sofia with identical posters on free buses. This counter-protest was organized in the diocese of Plovdiv by metropolitan Nikolai, one of the most influential and ambitious Bulgarian metropolitans. These people were brought in to support the Holy Synod “unconditionally,” regardless of the decisions it would make. In this way they demonstrated the idea of unconditional obedience to the highest ecclesiastical authority, regardless of whether it makes the right decisions. That is why they stood with banners “We support the Holy Synod.”

The goal of the counter-protesters was not explicit; they did not declare any position in this conflict. Rather, they were a clear demonstration of the metropolitan’s absolute authority over his diocese and its people, including their conscience. Their presence in the capital was to demonstrate to everyone, including other metropolitans, how one could “firmly rule” one’s flock, and not show “weakness” by allowing “ordinary” priests and laymen to interfere in “bishop’s affairs.”

In practice, two tendencies in Bulgarian ecclesiastical life have collided in the square. The first defends the right of the clergy and laity to have a voice in the election of metropolitans and patriarchs and calls for real cooperation between the highest clergy and priests and the people, and the latter insists on an authoritarian model of governance of church life by the episcopate.

The turbulent situation in the Sliven diocese in recent weeks was not an exception in the recent Church history of the country; the election of new metropolitans is a cataclysmic event, especially in the seaside dioceses, where there are various economic interests. But the real protests of the clergy and laity, the dialogue and shift of opinions of the Synod members showed something else of great importance: in the Bulgarian Church there is no rigid vertical power structure, which many people are familiar with, first of all, in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The traditions of the Bulgarian Exarchate, as well as the strong influence and proximity of the Church of Greece, where the synodal model of governance is in effect, do not allow the BOC to strengthen the sole authority of the Primate. The idea of concentrating institutional power—administrative and legislative—entirely in the hands of the high clergy also seems difficult to implement. However, the pursuit of this idea on the part of the episcopate remains a serious challenge that will continue to confront Bulgarian Christians in the years to come. It is expected that the upcoming elections of the Bulgarian patriarch will also take place in the context of this ecclesiastical confrontation. It is the personality of the new patriarch that will largely determine which of the two tendencies—synodality or authoritarianism—will prevail in the life of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

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About authors

  • Polina Spirova

    Polina Spirova

    Senior Lecturer in Religious Pedagogy at St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Bulgaria

    Polina Spirova holds the position of Senior Lecturer in Religious Pedagogy and Assistant at the Department of Practical Theology within the Faculty of Theology at St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia (Bulgaria). In 2008, she successfully defended her dissertation titled "Orthodox religious educa...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author
  • Zlatina Ivanova

    Zlatina Ivanova

    Byzantologist, Independent Researcher

    Zlatina Ivanova is a Byzantologist and independent researcher who obtained her doctoral degree in Byzantine history from St. Kliment Ohridsky University of Sofia (Bulgaria), specializing in "Daily Life in the Monasteries of Early Byzantium." She completed her Master's Program in Byzantine History at...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University