The Politics of Orthodoxy

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Innocent readers of Julia Duin’s profile of Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) in Sunday’s Washington Post will conclude that His Beatitude has gotten himself cross-ways with the other bishops of his denomination because he’s been over-bold in attempting to lead them into the coalition of the religious right. That’s not the story, by a long shot.

Yes, it’s true that the Orthodox tend to be reluctant to jump into the sandbox of pro-life, anti-same-sex-marriage activism. But you have only to read the minutes of the meeting of the OCA synod in Santa Fe last month to realize that the other bishops think Jonah’s gone off his rocker. That’s why he was stripped of some of his duties and obliged to take a 60-day leave of absence to “devote himself to his own spiritual and physical health without concern for the burdens of the primatial office.”

Jonah, 51, a youthful convert from Episcopalianism to the Russian-based wing of Eastern Orthodoxy in the U.S., was voted into his exalted position in 2008 as a way out of the massive financial scandal that had engulfed the OCA leadership. At the time, he explained to Duin (then working for the Washington Times), “A lot of the scandal was growing pains, moving from an old-style,
centralized church into a 21st-century church conscious of itself as a
nonprofit that has to abide by normal modes of operation. Previously, what the bishop wanted, the bishop could do
without checks and balances.”

Since then, Jonah has himself tried to do what he wanted, and that’s included moving church headquarters to Washington, removing the chancellor, bringing back some of the old guard, attacking the Patriarch of Constantinople, and seeking to weaken OCA self-governance (autocephaly, as it’s called) in favor of a position of subservience to Moscow. But even the Russians have been put off. This week Metropolitan Hilarion met with some bishops on Long Island and reaffirmed OCA autocephaly, then flew to Washington and, it seems, read Jonah the riot act. You can follow this on the adversarial websites ocanews and ocatruth.

To call OCA politics Byzantine is only to recognize the origins of the term. One component consists of converts like Jonah, whose traditionalist agenda includes a full measure of culture wars witness. But to see Orthodoxy today through their preferred lens is to see through a glass very darkly indeed.