For the last two years, bishops of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and key members of the OCA administration have waged a not-so-subtle war against Metropolitan Jonah, doing their utmost to oust him. That effort reached a milestone this summer, when the Metropolitan tendered his resignation.
Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) has reason to be concerned: a strong advocate of its ideals—jurisdictional unity, spiritual renewal, lay participation in church governance, and transparency and accountability in church governance—has fallen.
+Jonah has been an active proponent of jurisdictional unity, not just by being part of the Episcopal Assembly but by achieving real results: he was instrumental in effecting reconciliation and unity in the United States among the OCA, the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). The strenuous difficulties between the OCA and ROCOR go back decades (see an account at Orthodox Wiki), but under +Jonah rapprochement happened in only a few years. In lectures, sermons, and pastoral letters his call for spiritual renewal in the Church and in our country has been consistent and clarion. He encouraged reforms for greater accountability and transparency in the OCA. I have witnessed firsthand his refreshing candor in matters of church governance. As Vice-President of the primatial cathedral, I was at ease expressing disagreement with his decisions (it happened more than once, and on important matters) because he welcomed a free exchange of ideas, trusting that all of us in the church aspire to preserve Holy Tradition. Although he was not a skilled administrator, he knew how to delegate administrative responsibilities to competent people, laity as well as clergy, and he trusted them to do their work well. +Jonah has been one of the few bishops to attend OCL meetings, encouraging us to fulfill our mandate. A finer friend to OCL is hard to find among the bishops.
In their recent actions, however, the OCA bishops and administration have brought harm, both to the faithful of the OCA and to their fellow Orthodox, here and abroad.
The bishops are to be commended for breaking with their customary silence by releasing an official three-page statement on July 16, the day OCL issued its own call for an explanation. At the time, the official statement was refreshing. It did not merely accuse but supplied events, sprinkled with dates, places, and persons. The example that best illustrated the need for +Jonah's removal involved the accusation of sexual misconduct by a priest. Such frankness was surprising. Allegations like these are usually suppressed or skirted in official explanations.
But a number of persons have taken a closer look at the statement, found serious problems, and argued that it is riddled with fundamental errors of fact and logic. Over the last two months the responses have accumulated. Many of these have been posted as main articles or substantive comments on the blog run by George Michalopulos. (Caveat lector—the best critiques are mixed with the worst.) Now the lengthiest, if not most substantive, critique of the OCA statement has been compiled by Christine Fevronia.
Collectively, these counterarguments portray the bishops as having misled or misinformed the public. At best they have made mistakes, at worst lies, about the few specifics discussed. The account given by the bishops to exemplify Jonah's wrongdoing is riddled with factual errors. Once those and all other alleged errors are secluded, the statement is heavy on insinuation and light on facts. One cannot help but ask, was the statement merely a pretext to damage +Jonah's reputation?
The OCA's response to criticism has been silence, a call for the church to move on and heal. The bishops have not answered any of the objections. Meanwhile their statement has become the basis for stories in the mainstream media that have cast +Jonah and the OCA in negative light (Philadelphia Inquirer [July 17]; Washington Post [July 20]; Newsday [July 22]; Chicago Tribune [August 31]).
The longer OCA leadership ignores charges that they have lied, the greater the faithful will distrust them. I myself want to believe the best of my bishops, but they have not given me any reason to do so. In fact, the July 16 statement indirectly corroborates reports (hitherto rumors) that elements of OCA administration were for a long time secretly working to remove +Jonah. So this is the custom of the bishops? To devour their own? Who is next? Where does it stop? I have done my best to keep my two children from knowing what the bishops have done. I do not wish them to learn from the synod how to treat others.
Members of OCL, no matter the jurisdiction, should be particularly wary of the attack on +Jonah and the way the OCA has presented it to the public. The ideals held by OCL have been offended. Where is the transparency and accountability? Where is the spiritual renewal? Where is the OCA's regard for its sister churches, all of whom are affected?
A prime concern of the OCL—jurisdictional unity—is at stake. The OCA is one of the few jurisdictions in America to allow the laity to participate in the election of a Metropolitan, and not a few OCL members have looked to the OCA as a model for a united Orthodox Church. But if the voice of the people, the "axios" proclaimed by all the faithful of the OCA in 2008, can be taken away by a select few, absent the laity and without cause or justification, then the OCL should fear the example the OCA brings to a united Church.
Despair is not in order. I can think of two ways the leadership of the OCA could halt their downward spiral:
If the bishops and leaders of the OCA would exercise this kind of response, would they show a devotion for Holy Tradition, would they show in words and deeds contrition and humility, I would gladly make them role models for my family. Until then, whenever the bishops are brought up in conversation around my children, I must maintain an embarrassed, awkward silence.
Joel Kalvesmaki is a member of St. Nicholas Cathedral (OCA), Washington, DC, where he served as Vice-President in 2011.
The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of OCL.