20:29 Sat 17 May 2008 - Clive Leviev-Sawyer
In a decision on an issue that symbolises the divisions in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, its national council has turned down a proposal to return to the Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7.
The decision was taken at the sixth National Orthodox Church Council, which began meeting on May 14 and closes on May 18. The council is discussing wide range of issues, including the permissible minimum age limit for its head, to be elected after the death of Patriarch Maxim, who is in his 90s and in frail health.
"There is no need to change the calendar, more so because Bulgaria is on the road to Western Europe where holidays are established and are celebrated on the same day," the spokesperson for the council, Patriarch Tihon, was quoted as saying by Bulgaria's Focus news agency.
Bulgaria, as a country, changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in March 1916. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church made the change in 1968, sparking a long-running feud between "Old Calendarists" and "New Calendarists" which resurfaced on the agenda of this year's council meeting at Rila Monastery.
Among countries where the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church dominates, Russia, Georgia and Serbia celebrate Christmas on January 7. Armenia, on a slightly different calendar celebrates on January 6. The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on December 25.
The 2008 council, attended by 190 delegates, is significant because rivals in the church are preparing for the time when Patriarch Maxim, now 93 and who has been head of the church since 1971, will die. There has been severe strife in the church during his leadership, especially after the fall of communism, when there were attempts by anti-communist political and church forces to oust him. Maxim's ill health was given as the reason for the postponement of this council's meeting two years ago.
However, observers of the church note that Maxim's continued presence, in spite of his frailty which has kept him away from a vigorous public role, is keeping the lid on disputes between rival factions on serious issues, from the direction the church should take as a social force, to whether to allow the alienation of church property for real estate development.
One idea doing the rounds at the Rila gathering was whether to lower the minimum age for a Patriarch from 50 to 45 or even 40. Another debate which symbolises the tension between conservatives and reformists is about whether to stop using Church Slavonic at services and adopt modern Bulgarian to enable churchgoers to easily understand what is being said.
Standart newspaper reported on May 14 that an idea to reduce the size of the Holy Synod had numerous supporters. The reform envisages that the Holy Synod would be cut down to six metropolitans, applying a rotation principle for replacements.
On May 17, it was announced that the council would probably soon resume deliberations because it was unlikely to complete its agenda.
In another decision, the council, which gathers both clergy and Bulgarian Orthodox laity, decided to remove the word "People's" from the name of the gathering.
Speaking on May 14 at the opening of the council, President Georgi Purvanov said that the gathering should play an important role in strengthening the church's place in Bulgarian society.
In a reference to the strife involving the church after the fall of communism, Purvanov said that there had been "negative events" that had damaged the standing of the church, but this had been ended with the approval in 2002 of a new law on the registration of religious denominations.
According to a report by Bulgarian news agency BTA, Purvanov said that Bulgaria pinned its hopes on the Bulgarian Orthodox Church helping inovercoming the negative and alarming phenomena happening with the new generation that was born and grew up in the difficult years of Bulgaria's post-communist transition.
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