June 1, 2016 the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church decided not to take part in the “Holy and Great Council” on Crete. The liberal Bulgarian media saw in it “the hand of Moscow.” Metropolitan Gabriel (Dinev) of Lochev reflects on what dogmatic considerations stood behind their decision and why it could not have been made under Moscow influence, how Bulgarians relate to Russians and Greeks, why the Bulgarians agreed at the preliminary meetings to the principle of consensus for making decisions, and how to relate to the World Council of Churches and ecumenism.
—Your Eminence, the decision of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church not to participate in the Pan-Orthodox Council on Crete aroused divergent responses. Many of them were highly critical and judgmental, including in Church media. How would you explain in plain language what happened and why the hierarchs decided to proceed in such a way?
—Our decision was consequent of another decision on April 21, 2016, when the Holy Synod expressed its position on the draft documents prepared by the Pan-Orthodox commission for reviewing and accepting at the Holy and Great Council. About one document, regarding the relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world, we were rather critical. And we decided that this text could not be accepted in its present form, inasmuch as it would legitimize ecumenism. We were intending to go to the Council. We had reserved our places in the hotel on Crete. We agreed about the plane to fly on to the island to participate in the Council. We pre-paid no small sum for hotel accommodations on Crete, which means we had serious intentions of going to the Council to advocate our Orthodox position. In the extreme case that we wouldn’t be able to defend it or that we wouldn’t be heard, we thought we just wouldn’t sign the Council documents.
However, at our Synodal meeting on June 1, after discussing we decided to suggest postponing the Council to another time, so that preparations for it could continue. We decided that there is presently a lack of preparedness for such a big, Great and Holy Council. Our considerations were the following:
Firstly, the Council agenda is lacking some very serious topics. If they won’t be dealt with at this Council, then when will they be considered and taken into account?
Secondly, we examined the regulations adopted at the beginning of the year in January in Chambesy by the primates and representatives of the Orthodox Churches. In them the procedure for reviewing the documents is thus: if a change proposed for a given document doesn’t get unanimous approval by all Orthodox Churches the change can’t be adopted. It became clear to us that our amendments would not be approved.
The Pan-Orthodox commission in Chambesy looked over the documents which were worked on in the previous century. The primates decided then that amendments should be only of a cosmetic character, because they didn’t have a mandate to introduce serious changes. In such a situation we hoped that the draft documents would be seriously redacted at the Council itself. However, alas, it became clear that from draft documents they became unanimously adopted and effectively unchangeable. Consequently, inasmuch as the situation will not be changed, our decision was to not participate in the Council. The Holy Fathers dedicated their lives to defending the purity of the holy Orthodox faith. How can we betray their sacred work?
—When the Synod’s decision became known it was followed by attacks from all various sides. Many called the decision radical, improper, paradoxical… And moreover they have accused the Synod of a lack of love for non-Orthodox Christians.
—In the beginning of the pre-conciliar process the question was posed to our Church whether we wanted decisions to have to be accepted by consensus—complete unanimity—or by a majority vote. The Ecumenical Patriarchate thinks the Orthodox diaspora throughout the entire world belongs to it. That means, for example, that Bulgarians living anywhere beyond the borders of their homeland would be the flock of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. However, Bulgarians absolutely don’t want that. Now they are the flock of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in its two foreign Bulgarian dioceses. There we have Bulgarian bishops and Bulgarian priests. So, our countrymen, far from their homeland, maintain a spiritual connection with it.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate also believes it has the right to grant (and presumably to take away too) autocephaly to a particular Local Orthodox Church. Considering these and other problems, and also that there are more Greek-speaking Churches, our Synod voted then for the principle of consensus, and not a majority vote, but we never thought we would find ourselves at an impasse.
It’s necessary that the Council be a valid and canonical council in order to solve the issues, and that it in no way deviates from the spirit and teachings of the previous councils, the teachings of the Holy Fathers and Holy Scripture, and should always reflect the truth of our faith. We must restore the practice of all the previous councils until now, Local and Ecumenical, so each bishop would have a voice. Never before was there such a practice that only each Church had its own voice—one, that deprives the primates and bishops of the right to vote.
As for love for the heterodox, we should be completely honest with our brothers finding themselves in heresy or schism, and with love and pain pray that they would return to the Church of Christ.
The Holy Metropolis of Lovech has run a soup kitchen for the poor for more than ten years now. We try to take the poorest and neediest, not asking them what they believe.
—Are there grounds for criticism of this decision as Russophilia? And can you clarify if there was Russian influence in this particular situation? For those who are learned about the situation, it’s clear that the arguments of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church are completely different than the position of the Russian Church, so how far is it correct to confound the decision of both Churches?
—Listen, we’re Russophiles, we’re Grekophiles, because we can’t but feel close to those countries where Orthodoxy predominates. The Lord said we should love everyone, and love our enemies. How could I not be close to Russia, where although there was Communism, it’s an Orthodox country?! Communism collapsed thanks to the strength of Orthodoxy in Russia. No other country suffered such a war against Orthodoxy as did Russia. Without the deep faith of the Russian Christian, the Russian Church could not have endured. If we penetrate and see what persecution means, what a war against the faith means, it is unthinkable and terrible! How can we not respect these Christian martyrs?
We are not speaking about politics. We are speaking about Orthodox people.
Besides that, Russia freed us from Turkish slavery. That’s the truth, and why should we turn a blind eye now that the political situation is different?
This is why we respect the Orthodox in Russia.
The position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is quite another matter. In February of this year there was a council of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are more than 300 bishops there. They accepted all the pre-conciliar documents. It seems that in all four bishops didn’t agree to these decisions. In such a situation, if we were directly subordinate to the Russian Church, wouldn’t we have had to do the same on April 21? On April 21 our Church made an independent decision to propose changes to the pre-conciliar documents, considering that they contain un-Orthodox positions. At that time the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was the first autocephalous Church to take a sound and critical stance to the chapter “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World.” After our official announcement others followed, and also Holy Mount Athos. Before us some bishops, priests and theologians had written critical commentaries. But the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was the first Church to take an official stance on this controversial topic.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was the first to refuse participation in the Pan-Orthodox Council. We did this openly and with well-reasoned arguments, and the decision was made unanimously.
At that time on major international Church sites there appeared such comments as: “We are glad that we have such brother Slavs who will save Orthodoxy with their Orthodox position,” “the Bulgarian Church is writing a new history of Orthodoxy,” and so on. A questionnaire was published on the site “pravoslavie.bg,” which isn’t connected with the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, with the question: “Do you approve of the decision of the Holy Synod not to participate in the Synod?” So far the result is 65% “yes” and 35% “no.” Already in the first hours we received many enthusiastic greetings from Orthodox Christians, scattered throughout the whole world, who called our position brave and valiant.
And so, as you see, following after the arguments and refusal to participate of the tiny and poor Bulgarian Church are the Antiochian Patriarchate, Serbian Orthodox Church, Georgian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Our position is not anti-conciliar, but constructive. Unity must be in truth. If you want to be honest, how can you not appreciate this? We obeyed only our Orthodox conscience. That’s the truth.
I’ll say again: we are russophiles, although independent russophiles. I wrote my doctoral dissertation in Russia, and my topic was “Characteristics of the podvig of the Russian ascetics of piety in the twentieth century.” I wrote about 450 ascetics, many of whom are already canonized. 450 holy men in one century—it’s a large amount! However there are even many more—this is just those I found. How could you not respect such a Church and such Christians? And how could we not respect the Greek Orthodox Church? Look at how many great saints there are there in recent times! How could I not respect a Church that gave us in most recent times Venerable Paisios and Porphyrios and others? And there are even now living saints in the Orthodox world.
—How do you explain for yourself the desire of many commentators that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church participate in the Council at any cost? How do you explain the accusation that the Church is anti-conciliar if it doesn’t want to sign and accept every document, whether they aide in truth or fall away from it?
—In my opinion, here there are two types of people. First are those who don’t understand the depth of the problem. The second type are those who well know what we’re talking about and want the Pan-Orthodox Council to legitimize these ecumenical documents. True Christians understand and support us.
And now many people are thanking us, but not because we’re not going to Crete, but because they see in our position a serious analysis and act according to conscience. Many people believe it would be better if a Council which will accept documents of an ecumenical bent, destroying the unity of the Church, didn’t happen, but that it would be postponed and prepared as befits a great and holy council.
—Your Eminence, can we hope that the important decisions taken by the Bulgarian Orthodox will be accessibly clarified to people who don’t understand Church terminology very well? Will the clergy come among the laity to make them partners in your important decision?
—We’re trying to do it. In recent months there have been several decisions. He who will diligently seek, the same will find the truth. However, there is a lot of material that can lead people into confusion.
In the long history of the Church there have been “robber councils.” Not every council bore the truth. There were such councils in the history of the Church which were later rejected—unduly summoned and having passed heretical and false decisions.
—What is your attitude to ecumenism? Is it a heresy?
—The word “ecumenism” has now become particularly negative. For me there are two version of ecumenism. The first is to serve as a missionary. The second is to change your faith by any means in order to satisfy another. The second version is a heresy. I know modern missionaries, who without causing harm to Orthodoxy, could demonstrate the beauty and majesty of our faith, exerting an influence over many heterodox and guiding them miraculously to the Church. Such dialogue and such a position are salvific. That is, they managed to present the Church in a proper fashion by its worship, its dogmatic teachings, and by personal example.
But, for example, the World Council of Churches is an organization whose activity is anchored on the idea that all “churches” are equal. They declare their aspirations to find the truth, but they consider that any member of this organization is part of one universal church. If we took part in the World Council of Churches (thank God the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has not participated in it for many years already), it would mean that we accept the heretical notion of this regulation.
The saints spoke, helped, comforted, and gave wise counsel not only to Orthodox Christians. Many new people entered into the Church through this communication. This is the positive version of ecumenism. But when they break their heads over how we can adapt things so that “the wolves would be satisfied, and the sheep alive,” then faith is for sale. After all, there’s been no heterodox becoming Orthodox as a result of these theological ecumenical dialogues, but actually it’s the exact opposite—the Orthodox hurt themselves.
—Are you expecting sanctions from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which called the sister Churches to be present at the Council’s meetings? In the document from June 5 it’s also mentioned that “there is no institutional framework for reviewing the already begun conciliar procedure.” How would you comment on the dogmatization of the preliminary documents?
—We hope that the Ecumenical Patriarchate will decide to delay the Council so that preparations may continue.
—If the Pan-Orthodox Council would be delayed, would the Bulgarian Orthodox Church go?
—If the Pan-Orthodox Council would be delayed and prepared in the spirit and truth of the previous Holy Councils, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church would undoubtedly take an active part in it.
—What are the most important problems in Orthodoxy not found in the Council’s agenda? Which issues would the Bulgarian Orthodox Church add?
—In 1948 in Moscow there was a pre-conciliar conference in which all the Local Orthodox Churches took part. So, for example, about the calendar question it was decided that until the calling of the Pan-Orthodox Council every Local Church can serve according to the old or new style, while Pascha should remain the same for everyone. But at the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council the calendar should become the same for all Orthodox Churches.
At the beginning of the preparations for the Pan-Orthodox Council there were 100 topics. Now there are six remaining. I already mentioned one of the most important—the calendar question, because it’s not becoming of the Church to serve on two calendars. The current situation provokes separation, and it concerns all. If now at the upcoming Council they won’t adopt one style, then when will it happen?
The question about autocephaly is also very important. There are other important topics, which, if the Council doesn’t resolve them, they’ll never be resolved by anyone.
—Is the Bulgarian Orthodox Church standing on the threshold of a new revitalization? Will June 1 become the first day of an inner revival of our Church?
—Where there is repentance there is power for transfiguration. May God grant that it would be so!