Julia Duin, a veteran religion reporter, has written a profile of the embattled leader of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Jonah, for the Washington Post weekend edition. She does an admirable and fair job of not only telling us about this American-born bishop but explaining why his short tenure has sparked so much controversy within the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. (Let me bring to your attention, right away, that Jonah is our plenary speaker on June 16 at Acton University.)
The metropolitan’s outspoken stances on issues like marriage and abortion, and his desire to operate from a base in Washington, has sparked a palace revolt in the OCA. As Duin puts it:
Jonah’s move to Washington strikes at the core of the traditional Eastern Orthodox reluctance to be on the front lines of the culture wars, much less political conflicts. The religion’s 1 million American adherents, who remain split into 20 separate ethnic groups, are more likely known to the general public as sponsors of bazaars featuring Slavic or Mediterranean food, crafts and dancing than as societal firebrands.
“Orthodox Christianity tends to be heavily theological and more concerned with matters of doctrine, liturgy and belief than evangelical Protestants and certainly the conservative Christian right,” said Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a senior fellow at the Utah-based Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy. “They’re wrestling with how to find this balance between Christianity and activism, which makes it difficult for them to speak with a unified voice on social policy and foreign affairs.”
But Jonah sees American Orthodoxy at a crossroads where the choice is either to remain in ethnic enclaves and be irrelevant or jump into the stream of culture and politics and make a difference. He dreams of Orthodox Americans speaking out “as a conscience for the culture.” They would have clout in Congress, advocating for persecuted Orthodox around the world, such as the Egyptian Copts. They would stand equal with evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning and euthanasia.
Fr. Gregory Jensen, a writer for Acton News & Commentary and contributor to this blog, says the battle that Jonah is waging goes beyond polemics on “hot button” issues. On his Koinonia blog, Fr. Gregory says the real fight is whether or not the Orthodox Church will proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square. I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly.
Especially in the historical centers of American Orthodox experience, what is unique to the person or the parish has often been minimized if not ignored and even rejected. Our managerial approach to Church polity has historically often confused communion with conformity and consensus with capitulation to the group. And it has done so to the detriment of the individual believer (clergy AND laity), parish and diocese. To those who have become conditioned to think of Church life as a zero sum game (which more often than not means “I” lose and “they” win) an entrepreneurial approach, that is to say an unapologetic evangelical approach that embraces an explicit proclamation of the Gospel in the public square, would be terrifying. We are wrong when we think that new people, new ideas, can only come at our expense.
So I’m clear, this fear is understandable but wrong and based in a Satanic lie and must not be allowed to take hold in our hearts, in our parishes or our dioceses.
Yes, there is a power struggle in the OCA and really in all the Orthodox jurisdictions in America. I would even suggest that this conflict is being played out internationally among all the Orthodox Churches and it is happening for the same reasons we see it in America—we’ve adopted an implicit zero sum model of Church that confuses position with self-aggrandizement. But in Christ power, ecclesiastical or civil, is always in the service of others and His promise to us is that we will spread to the ends of the earth and always overcome the powers of sin and death.
Read “Metropolitan Jonah goes to Washington” in the Post.