The future of the Church of Ohrid, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Serbia


By Dimitrios Keramidas*

The Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) through their synod decisions (on 9 and 16 May respectively) made known their decision to end the schism that has existed for almost half a century due to the canonical non-existence (since 1967) of the so-called “Orthodox Church of Macedonia”.

Indeed, both the EP and the SOC have restored Eucharistic communion with the Church of the Republic of North Macedonia (CNM) and brought it back from a schismatic state to ecclesiastical canonicity.

The EP acted on the basis of its right to receive appeals (see canons 9 and 17 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council). Thus, he accepted the request made to the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the hierarchy of the CNM and restored Eucharistic communion with it. Accordingly, the SOC proceeded to normalize its relations with the CNM, apparently following the acceptance by the latter, following bilateral discussions, of the ecclesiastical regime of 1959, i.e. the autonomy granted to it by the SOC.

Furthermore, the EP stated that the CNM will not have the term “Macedonia” or any derivative thereof as its title (as agreed in writing by the CNM). On the contrary, the SOC did not make it a prerequisite for regulating its relations with the CNM.

Specifically, the EP stated that the CNM would use the name [Archdiocese/Church] “Ohrid” as the official name, while the SOC appears less clear, since it specifies that the name of this Church will be decided after a fraternal dialogue with the other Orthodox Churches, including the Church of Greece.

Of course, one can reasonably assume that the Church of Greece will never recognize another Church named “Macedonia”. Perhaps the position of the SOC is also due to the objections that the Bulgarian Church might raise to the use of the title “Ohrid” because in the past this archdiocese extended to the geographical area of ​​the current Bulgarian state.

However, if the SOC wishes the decision on the title of the CNM to be taken within the framework of a fraternal dialogue, then the designation “Macedonian” should de facto be excluded. In any case, the EP seemed to have a clear position on this aspect, unlike the SOC which followed a different logic.

Regarding the jurisdictional boundaries of this new archdiocese/church, the EP clarified that they should not extend beyond the territory of the Republic of North Macedonia. Again, the SOC appeared less clear in this regard, since it stated that it was not bound “by restrictive covenants on the scope of the jurisdiction of the [CNM] in the country and on the diaspora”.

It may also be because the SOC believes that Greek Diaspora worshipers will be included in the ecclesiastical structures it maintains. For its part, the EP could not deny its rights around the exclusive administration of the Orthodox communities of the Diaspora under Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod.

In our view, the limitation of the CNM within state borders is also intended to avoid future territorial ambitions on the part of the CNM that may affect other ecclesiastical jurisdictions. If this risk can only be avoided by agreeing on the title of the new Church (in the sense of the SOC), for the EP this is a question which also requires territorial delimitation.

The EP did not specify the ecclesiastical status of the CNM, although it implicitly indicated it. Thus, the Synod of the EP instructed the SOC “to settle administrative matters between itself and the Church of North Macedonia, within the framework of canonical order and ecclesiastical tradition.” In other words, the EP did not specify whether the new archdiocese/church should be autocephalous, autonomous or semi-autonomous.

Of course, it is not hard to assume that the EP would never grant another Church its right to grant autocephaly. For its part, the SOC specified that the status of the CNM would be that of “the widest possible autonomy, that is to say of total internal independence”. Therefore, the solution implicitly proposed by the EP as the only canonical status of the CNM is autonomy, which was mentioned in the communiqué of the Serbian synod of May 16.

From the foregoing, it emerges that the interventions of the two Churches have elements of convergence. But there are also some deviations. For example, in its communiqué, the EP did not refer to the Patriarchal Tomos of 1922, nor to the SOC as the “mother” Church of the CNM, although it asked the SOC to regulate its administrative relations with the CNM and thus recognized its right to finalize, at least in executive terms, the solution of the schism.

On the other hand, the SOC did not refer to the decisions of the EP synod (although it indirectly answered the questions raised by the latter, such as the question of the name and jurisdiction of the new archdiocese/church), nor did he declare that he would consult the EP or implement the decisions taken by the Phanar. In other words, the SOC acted as a Church that feels capable of providing a canonical solution independently of the EP, thus showing that it does not see itself as the executive arm of the decisions made by the Phanar.

It can be concluded from what has been said that:

a) The EP establishes the general framework of the ecclesiastical statute of the new archdiocese (name and limits of competence).

(b) The SOC, without formally considering the decisions of the EP, did not make any final decisions on the name of the CNM, nor set its canonical boundaries.

Of course, one cannot help but notice that the tone of both synodal decisions is peaceful, that the aggressive spirit is absent – ​​even through this… silence from both sides – while, as mentioned, there is room for consensus around the name and canonical status of the new Church.

Another question is whether the EP should proceed with the resolution of the schism without prior consultation with the SOC. In other words, the question is whether the EP has the right to resolve ecclesiastical questions concerning the canonical territory of other Churches. Of course, the EP left it to the SOC to determine its exact administrative relationship with the CNM. In other words, he acted within the privileges that the “first” Church has in Orthodoxy in terms of resolving Orthodox disputes, without acting with “exclusivity” in terms of providing administrative solutions, although that this act may not be adopted by the SOC.

Last, if not less important, one should not ignore the role of the CNM itself in accepting the synodal decisions of the two Churches. In an effort to restore communion with the other Orthodox Churches, the CNM appealed to the EP and at the same time entered into discussions with the SOC (previously also with the Bulgarian Church).

Therefore, it can be said that insofar as the CNM accepts the canonical solution proposed to it – taking into account the guarantees it has given to the EP concerning its name (the non-use of the “Macedonian” name) and to the SOC concerning his ecclesiastical status – he will show his willingness to integrate fully into Orthodox society throughout the world.

One can therefore only rejoice that Eucharistic communion between an individual Church and the other Orthodox Churches has been restored, at a time when Orthodoxy is suffering from various tensions.

As we have seen, the general context of the ecclesiastical identity of the CNM has been largely determined by the synodal actions of the EP and the SOC. If there are still open questions, such as the cases in which the EP can intervene in intra-Orthodox affairs and how its interventions are accepted by the other Churches or how the pan-Orthodox consensus is expressed (insofar as the consensus is a criterion of unity of world Orthodoxy), the problem of the CNM seems to have been resolved without provoking new ruptures in the battered body of the Orthodox Church.

These were at least the indications, until the request presented by the President of the Republic of North Macedonia to the Ecumenical Patriarch to give autocephaly to the CNM, as well as the announcement made by Patriarch Porfirije of Serbia on May 24 on the recognition of CNM autocephaly. During the Eucharistic co-liturgy at Skopje Cathedral, Patriarch Porfirije of Serbia said that “the Holy Synod of the Church of Serbia has responded unanimously to the appeals of the Orthodox Church of Macedonia (North ) and accepted and recognized his autocephaly”.

At first, this statement could be understood in the context of the SOC’s synodal decision of May 16 on the 1959 statute, namely that of “the widest possible autonomy” and “full internal independence”. But one is “inwardly” independent when one exists within a larger entity to which one belongs.

Finally, contrary to the published decision of the Serbian Synod of May 16, on June 5 Patriarch Porfirije handed over “Tomos of Autocephaly” to Archbishop Stephan of the “Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archdiocese of Ohrid”, invoking the 34th apostolic canon (!) “blessing, granting and recognizing” the canonical status of an autocephalous Orthodox Church. The Tomos will be submitted for approval to the other autocephalous Churches because the SOC considers that it is not “the only factor of autocephaly”, but it concerns the entirety of the Orthodox Church, which is why the acceptance of other Orthodox Churches is required.

The autocephaly granted by the SOC is “complete”, that is, complete independence from the SOC with no territorial restrictions.

Furthermore, the SOC considers that the new Church “is the successor of the ancient and glorious Archdiocese of Ohrid, because of which its title includes its honorific name, which covers the canonical space of the ancient and homonymous Autonomous Church of our Serbian Patriarchate of 1959”. The Tomos does not set jurisdictional boundaries within the state of the Republic of North Macedonia, but also recognizes the jurisdiction of the CNM in the diaspora.

Finally, the SOC recommends to the CNM to resolve the question of its name through a fraternal dialogue with the “Greek-speaking” Churches and the other local Orthodox Churches.

Rather, it means that the CNM will not have an “internal” autocephaly within the SOE, but that the SOC has created a new ecclesiastical entity. But what will be the reaction of the SOC if a Tomos of autocephaly is issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Can a volume be granted without a solution to the delicate question of the name, asking the other Churches to discuss the title of the new Church?

For now, the day after the SOC granted the Tomos of autocephaly, the CNM said in a press release that “we express our pan-Orthodox ecclesiastical hope that in the future, that is, when this is decided, the finalization of our ecclesiastical issue will begin with the publication of a globally recognized Tomos by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in accordance with his canonical and historical privileges. It therefore seems that the Hierarchy of the CNM does not wish that its ecclesiastical existence become the cause of a new conflict between the Orthodox, but that it integrates harmoniously into society with the rest of the Orthodox world.

We realize that the next few days will be crucial for the development of this question which affects world Orthodoxy in different ways.

* Dimitrios Keramidas is professor at the Pontifical Saint Thomas Aquinas University “Angelicum”, member of the Center for Ecumenical, Missionary and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou”


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