A change of heart – The Serbian Orthodox Church recognition of the Macedonian autocephaly

How can a conflict that appeared to be unsolvable for over half a century gets to be resolved in less than a month? What has changed in the perception among the hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) to greenlight and unanimously back the autocephaly request of the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC-OA)? These are the questions that we would not get clear answers today as the process leading to today’s historic decision to grant autocephaly to the MOC-OA by the Serbian Orthodox Church has been kept in secret and far from the public. While the pace of developments has been astonishingly fast, the political context in which this decision was taken may serve as a pointer to some of the answers to the questions above. 

The decisive and quick actions taken by the Ecumenical Patriarch at the beginning of May to accept the Ohrid Archbishopric led by Abp. Stefan into communion was followed by fast-tracked process for canonical detachment of the MOC-OA from the Serbian Orthodox Church. It was a canonical step-by-step solution that led to today’s decision to support MOC-OA’s autocephaly. The string of events unfolded in the following way. The MOC-OA and the SOC have been locked in several rounds of direct and secretive talks for the resolution of the Macedonian church question, which culminated at the beginning of May (2022). This was followed by the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to welcome the MOC-OA into communion and ask once again the SOC to resolve the “administrative matters” with the MOC-OA. According to the SOC press service, the MOC-OA meanwhile sent a letter  to the SOC asking it to return into communion with the SOC and be given the status of autonomy from 1959. In 1967 the MOC-OA unilaterally seceded from the SOC and has ever since then been in a dispute and in isolation from the rest of the Orthodox world.

The SOC accepted this request and confirmed this status by a joint concelebration between Archbishop Stefan of the Macedonian church and Serbian Patriarch Porfirije on 19 May 2022 in Belgrade. This step was greeted by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. After many years of frozen relations between these two churches the Serbian Patriarch made a historic visit to Skopje today to deliver the positive news directly to the Macedonian believers who gathered for a joint liturgy on the occasion of the Feast Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the main cathedral church of the MOC-OA in Skopje.

The positive conclusions from the Serbian Orthodox Church Bishops’ Council in relation to the autocephaly strive of the MOC-OA have taken many by surprise. However, today’s decision should be analysed and traced back to the developments from 2018 which created an enabling environment for a fresh assessment of the Macedonian church question. The joint state and church push for autocephaly from the Macedonian side in May 2018 represents the most concentrated effort for resolving of the church question since Macedonia’s independence in 1991. This approach towards the Ecumenical Patriarch from the Macedonian side came at the backdrop of the name negotiations between Macedonia and Greece which concluded with the signing of the Prespa agreement and the acceptance of the new name-North Macedonia. The settlement of this issue allowed for the Macedonian church and state appeals, for the first time, to be taken under serious consideration by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. All previous attempts by the Macedonian side were forwarded to Belgrade and treated as being an internal matter for the SOC. The readiness of the Macedonian Orthodox Church expressed the same month (May 2018) to be called under a different name “Ohrid Archbishopric” boosted the hopes for a possible resolution even further. The EP citing pastoral care needs in North Macedonia spoke that the SOC should not further delay the resolution of the question and offered his mediation role in January 2020. The hands-on interest shown by the Ecumenical Patriarch probably increased the pressure towards the SOC that keeping the question under the carpet for many years needs revisiting. The EP had an instrumental role in trying to get both sides agree to a solution. At the same, the return of the MOC-OA into regularity as an autonomous church represents a big leap of faith and a decision of high risk for the MOC-OA hierarchs who agreed to be placed back “temporarily” under the Serbian church administration. 

The question of the Macedonian autocephaly will almost certainly ignite a new discussion surrounding the principles and ways for granting autocephaly. This can either further polarise the intra-Orthodox relations or can be done by the book, which carries its own set of risks. The way the discussion will evolve depends on the next steps taken by the MOC-OA, SOC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Questions such as the role of the mother church in proclamation of autocephaly, the naming of the MOC-OA as well as the future of its diaspora can become problematic. The handling of the Macedonian church question has the potential to propel the Serbian Orthodox Church and the new Serbian Patriarch Porfirije as the “canonical champion” in the Orthodox world, after years of deep divisions in the Orthodox Church. 

Picture source: Serbian Orthodox Church (www.spc.rs), Joint Liturgy on the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, North Macedonia (Cathedral of Saint Clement of Ohrid).

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