Tradition in Bulgaria is that on Yordanovden, January 6, young men brave icy waters in pursuit of a cross hurled by a priest; that this year saw places where the ritual degenerated into an unseemly brawl rather than a swimming contest seemed an obvious analogy to what is going on within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church itself.
Leaving aside the mixed messages about the church’s stance on assisted reproduction and the public row about the allegedly opulent lifestyles of some of its senior clergy, the church is caught in the rapids about two other – arguably much more serious – issues. One is the state investigation into what it does with its state financial assistance; the other is the investigation into collaboration by senior clergy with the former communist-era State Security.
Neither of these latter investigations is expected to take very long, perhaps only a matter of a few weeks, and whatever the outcome, the controversies are likely to deepen further.
Power and glory
Most observers link all of these controversies to what is believed to be a power struggle to succeed Patriarch Maxim, the 97-year-old who has headed the church for more than 40 years. Even then, some reports have suggested that when he dies, the church might not appoint another Patriarch but rather, as it did for some years in the first half of the 20th century, have only a chairman of the Holy Synod. Still a matter of speculation in the media, the motivation of such a move would be to preserve the already considerable power of individual metropolitans.
There is, of course, a secular political element, and not for the first time in the latter-day history of the church. After the transition to democracy, a centre-right "Alternative Synod" arose, opposed to what it alleged was a church leadership that had been compromised by collaboration with the communist regime. The schism led to, among other things, prolonged public protest by the "Alternative Synod", official seizure (with the aid of police) of church property held by this body, and a European court action which ended with the court requiring the parties and the state to move to ensure the differences were worked out.
In current weeks, the secular political element has become most obvious with the grouping of a number of left-wing intellectuals who have publicly hit out against what they described as a politically-motivated attack on the church and on ancient Bulgarian traditions (the group accuses some media of connivance in this attack). These intellectuals, in turn, have come under fire among centre-right commentators in the media as well as from other academics and theologians as including several who were State Security collaborators and avowed supporters of the communist atheist system.
One of the left-wing intellectuals, Anton Donchev, gave an interview to Bulgarian-language media bemoaning the state of the church, bemoaning the lack of people who want to become monks, decrying the church’s lack of outreach to young people.
Theological professor Dilyan Nikolchev, in an interview with Bulgarian-language daily Novinar, highlighted the identity of many of the intellectual "support group" as people identified with State Security and said that the church, rather than accepting protection, should distance itself from all sides in the public battle.
He said that the reason that people were so sensitive about the wealth of the bishops was because many senior clergy were seen as products and vestiges of the old regime – "in one way or another, they are dependent on our dark past".
Asked if he thought that there would be another schism in the church, Nikolchev said that he did not know, but already there was division within the Holy Synod, as well as a "schism" between the Holy Synod and the rank-and-file Orthodox Christian believers in Bulgaria.
Pollster Mira Radeva said that a survey had found that the church was doing too little to integrate young people. Seventy per cent identified themselves as Bulgarian Orthodox Christians but only 10 per cent thought it was important to attend church.
In the survey, most complained of a lack of church support for their spiritual lives. Instead, issues such as the church’s various signals about its stance on in vitro fertilisation made it come across as conservative and retrograde, alienating young people.
In a January 8 discussion on TV7, historian Momchil Metodiev said there was no doubt that the church would have to comply with scrutiny by the Dossier Commission, and it was important for these secret police files to be opened so that believers would know whether before them stood "a spiritual shepherd or a policeman".
He said that there was no danger of a new schism, because no one would support such an action now, but added that in recent years, the standard of clergy had dropped and many may not be adequate to the expectations of believers.