What the Macedonian Church’s Fight for Autonomy Signifies

On November 9, 2017, the Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church—Ohrid Archbishopric sent a letter to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church with three requests: 1) recognition of the Macedonian Orthodox Church by other Eastern Orthodox Churches; 2) recognition of Macedonian Orthodox Church autocephalous status (canonical independence); and 3) readiness to recognize the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as the Macedonian Orthodox Church’s mother Church. Reactions from Bulgaria were positive: Patriarch Neofit of Bulgaria, in an interview before the November 27, 2017, meeting of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church said: “We must accept the outstretched hand of Macedonia,” due to affinity and “common historical roots” between Bulgaria and Macedonia according to The Sofia Globe. However, the Holy Synod’s decision did not state clearly whether the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was agreeing to be the Macedonian Church’s mother Church according to The Sofia Globe, adding that the Bulgarian holy synod “was appointing a committee of bishops that would hold talks with the Macedonian and other Orthodox churches.”

Why did Macedonia’s request for autocephaly make headlines in the Orthodox world? Can Macedonia’s autocephaly have any impact in relations among the Orthodox Churches in the Western Balkans and beyond? Would Macedonia’s autocephaly have an impact on East-West relations and damage the “spiritual closeness” between Rome and Constantinople?

Balkan Geopolitical Intricacies
The positive reception of the Macedonian Orthodox Church letter on the part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church marks progress in Macedonian-Bulgarian relations. Historically, Bulgaria had a hard time recognizing Macedonia and Macedonians as a distinctive nation and people, and has insisted that the Macedonian language is a variant or a dialect of Bulgarian. According to Victor Friedman, an expert on Balkan languages, Macedonian is close to Bulgarian and Serbian and is descended from the dialects of Slavic speakers who settled in the Balkans during the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. Bulgarian nationalists, on the other hand, hailed the move of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

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Moreover, Bulgaria was among the first countries to officially recognize Macedonia’s independence, following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. This move was politically motivated and driven by fear that probably other neighboring countries would claim Macedonia’s territories. It is interesting to observe that the Macedonian Orthodox Church’s request for autocephaly followed the August 1, 2017, signing of a Friendship, Neighborhood and Cooperation Treaty between the Bulgarian and Macedonian governments, a treaty hailed also by the United States government. The treaty is expected to “contribute to political stabilization between the two countries in the region,” Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev told reporters.

Macedonia is facing border disputes with Serbia concerning the Serbian Orthodox Church’s jurisdiction in Macedonia. The Serbian Orthodox Church has refused to recognize the 1967 autocephaly of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. What exacerbates the situation of the Macedonian Orthodox Church with the Serbian Orthodox Church is the fact that the Serbian Church recognized the autonomy of the Macedonian Orthodox Church in 1959. Autonomy is different from autocephaly: an autonomous Church is self-governing in its internal matters, but its leadership is appointed by the Church that mothers it. Instead, an autocephalous Church is completely self-governed in electing its leadership.

The Serbian Church recognition of Macedonian Church autonomy was important ecclesiastically but also politically and contributed to national-identity building of Macedonia in the rather loose Yugoslav confederation of six republics. The Serbian Church considers the 1967 Macedonian autocephaly uncanonical and claims that the decision to assert autocephaly was made for political reason under pressure from the then Yugoslav Communist government. Illegal and uncanonical autocephaly has isolated the Macedonian Orthodox Church from the rest of the Orthodox Churches for fifty years and has caused a schism with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Thus, the November 9, 2017, letter to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church might potentially undermine the relations between Serbia and Bulgaria.

Then, there is the issue with the name “Macedonia” and Greece’s refusal to recognize the name and insisting on calling the country “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” According to a report published on December 14, 2017, it seems that the issues of the name will be resolved within 2018. “New Macedonia” is the name that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has proposed, and Greece is said to agree. There are additional political disagreements between Macedonia and the neighboring countries of Albania and Kosovo, and this adds to the internal problems with the strong and politically organized Albanian Muslim population of Macedonia.

Geoecclesiastical Intricacies
Historically, autocephaly has been an intricate matter in the life of Eastern Churches. Churches had to wait for decades in order to be recognized as autocephalous. The Bulgarian Church was recognized as autocephalous only in 1945, 72 years after it had proclaimed itself autocephalous; the Romanian Church in 1885, twenty years after autocephaly proclamation; the Church of Greece in 1850, seventeen years after; the Albanian Orthodox Church waited fifteen years after its autocephaly proclamation before Constantinople’s recognition. The issue of autocephaly or the granting and recognition of autocephaly from the mother Churches has constantly caused ecclesiastical problems in Orthodoxy, from the fourth century to the present to be exact.

According to Alexander Schmemann, the very notion of autocephaly, or jurisdiction, as presently apprehended in Orthodoxy, is missing from the canonical tradition that everyone accepts as normative in the Orthodox Church. This is enough reason for puzzlement and complication that very often and unfortunately have led to desecration and unscrupulousness, or Christians persecuting fellow Christians. The blossoming of autocephalies is a phenomenon that marked the history of the Orthodox Church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The awakening of national identities that had been suppressed for centuries and the incorporation of ecclesiastical organization into the notion of the sovereign state are key factors in the formation of new autocephalies. Schmemann defines this new reality as the national layer of the Orthodox tradition, which is very different from the early tradition and the imperial tradition, actualizations that emerged from what Schmemann called a progressive anamorphosis of Byzantium. During this period of Byzantine history, the Byzantine sense of universalism began to dissolve itself into narrow nationalism and exclusivism.

Furthermore, Orthodox nationalism was greatly influenced by laical nationalism. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries marked the idea of Christian nations, with a national vocation. Only during this period of Orthodox history appeared the notion of autocephaly, which is not a product of ecclesiology, but a national phenomenon. Autocephaly, i.e., ecclesiastical independence, becomes thus the very basis of national and political independence, the very status symbol of a Christian nation.

In the case of the Macedonian Orthodox Church autocephaly, supporters of autocephaly and the Communist authorities of post-war Yugoslavia had high hopes that the Moscow Patriarchate would have supported Macedonian Church autocephaly and the issue would have been resolved. However, Moscow never recognized Macedonia’s autocephaly. According to Mikhail Vitalyevich Shkarovsky, almost all former Yugoslav and current Serbian Christian historians claim that “the Macedonian Communists, supported by the leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party, initiated this process, whereas the local separatist clergy served only as an ‘obedient tool’ in their hands.” Bulgarian historians offer a different interpretation: they “suggest that the pro-Bulgarian Macedonian clergy played a crucial role in this process, and that the foundations of the new church in Macedonia was due to the Bulgarian spiritual administration present during the war.” What is the solution, then, to the Macedonian autocephaly?

What are the Macedonian Orthodox Church options?

Fifty years has passed since the Macedonian Orthodox Church has proclaimed its autocephaly and is waiting for its recognition. The Macedonia Church needs a Mother Church that will take her under its wing, support and nurture her. It seems, given the historical connections between Macedonia and Bulgaria, that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church makes a natural choice for the Macedonian Church and they made their choice loud and clear with the November 9, 2017, letter. There are some risks with this recognition coming from the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, both of which might expect their respective churches to be the mother Church and take leadership positions in recognizing autocephaly of the Macedonian Church. The Russian Orthodox Church might also play a role in the dialogue between the Orthodox Churches and might support Bulgarian Orthodox Church “sponsorship” of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

This is a delicate ecclesiastical matter that needs finesse, good will and, above all, dialogue to be resolved. If the Bulgarian Orthodox Church acts alone, unilaterally, with no consultation with other Orthodox Churches, the recognition of the autocephaly of the Macedonian Church might turn into an apple of discord among Orthodox Churches with severe consequences in the geopolitics and geoecclesiatics of the Balkans and damage the fragile peace in the Western Balkans and the building of a European Community.

Ecclesiastically speaking, the situation with the Macedonian Church and the five decades of waiting for the recognition of its autocephaly is hurting the unity of the Church—the Mystical Body of Christ. Macedonia, its Church and its mightily tried people ought to be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve as full members of the Orthodox and European family. According to statistics, the Macedonian Orthodox Church has 2,000 active churches and monasteries and more than a hundred monks and nuns working in Macedonia and abroad. Autocephaly, which is the desire of its Church and the Macedonian Orthodox faithful, needs to be recognized by the Orthodox Churches.

Would Macedonia’s autocephaly have an impact on East-West relations and damage the “spiritual closeness” between Rome and Constantinople?”

No, for the foreseeable future. The Vatican will remain neutral and will take no sides in the Macedonian Church autocephaly issue. Rome cannot jeopardize the friendly relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, whom Francis met in Havana in 2016 for the first time after almost 1000 years. For Patriarch Kirill “preservation of unity of all the Orthodox Churches” is an important imperative, as he said during his 2013 visit to Mount Athos. Macedonian Church autocephaly can potentially jeopardize the internal Orthodox unity. In the long run, if that unity is preserved it would have a direct impact on the ecumenical relations between East and West.

This Church of the periphery, to use Pope Francis’ favorite terminology, has much to contribute to the unity of Europe and East-West ecumenism. Vitiate lapidem longum tempus—length of time rots a stone, and the Macedonian Orthodox Church has waited long enough for its autocephaly to be recognized. “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Now it is time, and it is the right time.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Archbishop Stefan of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. (Photo credit: MIA)


  • Ines A. Murzaku

    Ines A. Murzaku is Professor of Church History, Department of Religion, Seton Hall University in New Jersey and until June 2016 was the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies. She earned a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. Her research has been published in multiple articles and five books the most recent Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (2016).

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