Covering warfare in a Byzantine maze — literally

It goes without saying that I have received quite a bit of email from GetReligion readers, and others, wanting to know my take on last Friday’s resignation, and now the ongoing humiliation, of Metropolitan JONAH of the Orthodox Church in America. In a way, this news was rather shocking, yet not all that shocking because the bitter infighting between the OCA’s old guard and its idealistic young leader has been building for more than a year.

If you need a refresher course on the borders of this truly Byzantine scandal, then click here for the large Washington Post Sunday Magazine feature on the early stages of the fighting.

For journalists, I would also recommend the following essay, “Same Sex Marriage and the Revolt Against Metropolitan Jonah,” published by Father Johannes Jacobse at the doctrinally-conservative American Orthodox Institute. While this article was written by Nicholas Chancy, an openly pro-Jonah leader in the OCA’s growing Diocese of the South (in many ways, this controversy is linked to the growth of the Diocese of the South), the key for mainstream reporters is that it points, naming names, toward many of the key figures in the drama — on the doctrinal left and right — and offers info that hints at how to track them down.

It will be hard to get voices on both sides to talk. However, that is what reporters will need to do, if they want to tell this story in a journalistic manner. Also, I would suggest that journalists tap Catholic and evangelical sources linked to recent debates about religious liberty issues, since Metropolitan JONAH’s work with them was so controversial to leaders on the Orthodox left (yes, there is a doctrinal left in some OCA circles). And someone needs to contact Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s point man on relations with other religious groups, Orthodox and otherwise.

There is much more I could say, but will not, since Metropolitan JONAH was a friend of my own parish, which is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. However, in the end, what we do here at GetReligion is discuss the mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion news.

This brings us to the first serious mainstream story on this affair, by Manya A. Brachear of The Chicago Tribune. The early versions of this report covered the press release, and little more. However, Brachear has waded several paces into this maze and now has some — limited — on-the-record quotes from key players. For example, there is this:

“People were looking for that new wind of leadership that he seemed to embody,” said the Rev. John Adamcio, rector at Holy Trinity Cathedral, the seat of the Chicago Diocese. “He was under an awful lot of pressure to right the ship and keep the church on course.”

Metropolitan Jonah didn’t just try to correct the course. He also tried to shift the direction of the Orthodox Church in America, part of a constellation of churches separate from the Roman Catholic Church since the 11th century. He insisted on amplifying the church’s voice in the public square, moving the church’s headquarters from Syosset, N.Y., to Washington and speaking up against abortion rights. In 2009 he led a handful of Orthodox clergy to sign the Manhattan Declaration, a pledge to disobey laws that could force religious institutions to participate in abortions or bless same-sex couples.

The Rev. Mark Arey, director of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said Metropolitan Jonah’s approach was not typical of Orthodox Christianity. “Orthodoxy is not in favor of abortion, but we don’t campaign in the same way you see evangelical groups,” Arey said.

But the Rev. Johannes Jacobse, president of the American Orthodox Institute, agreed with the primate’s foray into politics.

“He saw what needed to be said, and he wasn’t afraid to say it,” said Jacobse, an Antiochian Orthodox priest. “That kind of independence is threatening to a church that has operated by the same rules and assumptions for a long time. Part of this, too, was he represented a cultural shift inside the church that some thought should not have taken place.”

Of course, it is “politics” when an Orthodox leader defends the church’s doctrines in public. It is not “politics” when liberal activists inside the church work to silence the voice of the church, while quietly lobbying in seminaries and elsewhere to redefine those same doctrines. Gosh, that logic sounds rather familiar.

One more point: Voices on both sides are going to speak, at length, about Metropolitan JONAH’s self-confessed failures as an administrator. At some point, reporters will have to face a crucial question (should ecclesiastical or secular court proceedings come to past): What do the OCA’s own canon laws say about the events, the actual OCA synod and Metropolitan Council meetings, that led to Metropolitan JONAH’s fall?

Yes, reporters will need to find informed voices on both sides of those questions, too. Good luck with that.

PHOTO: Metropolitan JONAH, center, during a 2011 Divine Liturgy in Moscow, with Metropolitan HILARION, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John M.

    Is there a reason that Metropolitan Jonah’s given name appears in all caps in this post?


  • Will Harrington

    Its convention for writing an Orthodox Bishops name. You may also see a little cross (Plus sign) in front of the name.

  • Fr. Stephen Freeman

    The difficulty here is that a large part of the “warfare” has to do with personalities, style, and turf. Much of the liberal/conservative stuff is window-dressing or beside-the-point. Dreher has pushed that reading much further than the facts warrant, for instance (as does the Washington Post piece). Met. Herman was extremely vocal and always present in the anti-abortion March on Washington every year and never had anything but support on the topic. It’s incorrect to single this out. The OCA has always been much more visible and vocal on this than the GOA (thus it’s a poor choice to get a GOA reading on what’s the “Orthodox” approach).

    I am personally dismayed by how all of this developed and has fallen out. Met. Jonah is a good friend and I love him. But it’s incorrect to portray this, I think, as the “brood of vipers” (Dreher’s term) against the lone good guy.

    I am also alarmed by the invocation of the Diocese of the South in all of this. There are a few personalities, mostly laymen (and I mean few), who have wanted this to be a “cause.” By and large, this is the most peaceful, loving and collegial diocese in the country with a deep sense of desire to have in place a bishop who will be a fitting successor to Arbp. Dmitri, who was perhaps the least “political” and Byzantine man of his hierarchical generation. The last thing we want is for the Diocese of the South to be a cause. Our cause is to preach the gospel of the Kingdom and continue the mission of our beloved founding bishop.
    My own adopted state, Tennessee, had the largest percentage growth in the number of Orthodox parishes in the US between 2000 and 2010, small though we are. It is to that patient, godly work, that we are dedicated. We really don’t need the distraction of being anybody’s cause.

    The present distress is, indeed, a Byzantine-like problem. The news has a need to say something. The Church has a need to heal and get beyond this. The two needs are not entirely compatible (to say the least). The 4th estate exists with its freedom and “need to know” to keep the government in check. The same need to know does not apply to everything and everyone.

    Some of this is positively 5th century. At that time, the family of St. Cyril of Alexandria opposed St. John Chrysostom. Chrysostom wound up dying in exile, and being canonized within a decade. St. Cyril eventually, at the intervention of the Theotokos, agreed to commemorate Chrysostom. Some Byzantine things require the assistance of heaven to turn out right. I suspect that will be the case here.

    And so we pray…

  • tmatt

    When I said the Diocese of the South is crucial in this, I meant that its GROWTH has changed many crucial dynamics inside the OCA. What parts of the OCA are in decline? What parts are growing?

    Journalists must, once again, try to follow the money.

    Thus, I remain convinced that the growth and power of the DOS has helped shape the controversy — which is about much more than Metropolitan JONAH.

    Also, I was aware that OCA bishops have been quite active in the March for Life. This battle is not really about abortion. It’s impossible, at this stage, not to see the battles lines on sexuality and religious liberty.

  • Paul

    I’m still trying to figure out why the other Bishops wanted him to resign. There are no clear answers here. Can someone spell it out in simple kindergarten style? (Kindergarten style usually means just tell the truth, get to the point, and then shut up).

  • Jonathan D.

    I appreciate what Fr. Stephen has to say as well as Terry’s counterpoints. Honestly, if we grant that Fr. Stephen’s assertion that much of this is “has to do with personalities, style, and turf” then about “liberal/conservative” (though I would prefer to characterize it as traditionalist/non-traditionalist) that doesn’t do much to ameliorate concerns over Met JONAH’s resignation. Given his election in the aftermath of all the turmoils surrounding Met HERMAN’s last few years (including the Chancellor and others at Syosett), what was needed was a voice of humility and strength that could be TRUSTED by the members of the OCA. It does not seem to me that the Synod has built up any degree of trust among the membership, but in its treatment of Met. JONAH has simply reinforced much of the distrust that was there at the end of Met. HERMAN’s tenure – that they are interested more in their own power and position than in the Tradition of the Church or the welfare of the OCA. This may not be the entire truth, but in this day an age, when the Synod essentially asks that the members “trust us to do the right thing”, the deposit of trust is pretty close to empty and more than that is needed if the OCA is to move forward and heal from this.

  • tmatt


    Sorry, but a simple statement is not possible at this point. Why? Because voices on both sides are totally contradicting each other.

    Watch for other shoes to fall. Watch the seminaries. Watch the monasteries. Listen to the silences on major issues.

  • Jay

    Friend of GR Rod Dreher said “what’s done is done. And what was done is dirty. Filthy.”

    The Dover Beach blog prints an account of the ongoing attack on Jonah since day one.

  • Asshur

    As an outsider, I went thru all the backgrounders, and it’s really a hard to understand story.
    I only miss, for being completely Bizantine (or better modern era Orthodox), two of the usual suspects: No Roman looming somewhere, no Moscow in sight -apparently-

  • Greg

    tmatt says: “… a simple statement (as to why this happened) is not possible at this point… Listen to the silences on major issues.”

    Listen to the “silences” to get the answer? Now THAT is positively byzantine!

  • TheArcher

    “Covering warfare in a Byzantine Maze – literally”. Literally?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “The Rev. Mark Arey, director of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said Metropolitan Jonah’s approach was not typical of Orthodox Christianity. “Orthodoxy is not in favor of abortion, but we don’t campaign in the same way you see evangelical groups,” Arey said.

    But the Rev. Johannes Jacobse, president of the American Orthodox Institute, agreed with the primate’s foray into politics.”

    Looks like balanced reporting by Manya A. Brachear of The Chicago Tribune to me. Which doesn’t always happen in religion reporting.

  • tmatt
  • Fr. Hans Jacobse

    I wrote Manya Brachear a quick note this morning thanking her for what I thought was a very fair representation of what I said. The interview ran for about fifteen minutes but her summary is accurate.

  • Cal O

    “Orthodoxy is not in favor of abortion, but we don’t campaign in the same way you see evangelical groups,” Arey said.

    Here we have a double negative, which reduces to a positive statement in favor of abortion?

  • Chris Jones


    It’s clear from the context (though not from the text) that the adverb “literally” modifies “Byzantine,” not “warfare.” The reason we use “Byzantine” to mean “complex and convoluted intrigue” is because that characterizes the politics both of the state and of the Orthodox Church in the period of the Byzantine Empire. What has gone on in the OCA in the last decade or two really is reminiscent of the political machinations in the Church of the Byzantine Empire. That’s why TMatt describes the story as “literally Byzantine.”

  • Cal Oren

    In response to Fr. Stephen’s points:

    We are forced to rely on conjecture and perhaps in so doing we conjure up conspiracies because there are NO FACTS available!

    If you have an alternate explanation (“personalities, style, turf”) to Dreher’s and others’ concern that this is backlash against HB’s “social agenda” activities, it’s really only one person’s subjective impressions versus another’s. So we are left to hurl conclusions at each other without anyone having anything substantial to back them up.

    The man was overwhelmingly elected and confirmed by the Synod with enormous enthusiasm. Virtually everyone that has gotten to know him personally to any extent raves about his depth. sincerity, and humility. Then he is unanimously asked to leave, with NO EXPLANATION.

    Total and absolute refusal of the Synod to be accountable to the clergy and laity is the only documented failure here.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    TMatt and GetReligion readers,

    Does this post by Mark Silk provide balanced religion reporting on this news event of Metropolitan Jonah’s resignation:


  • Alan

    If this line had been in a news report would you consider it balanced:
    “OCA’s old guard and its idealistic young leader”

    What if they said:
    “OCA’s traditionalists and its aggressive reforming new leader”

    Do you not think that your ability to analyze the coverage of this particular issue isn’t a bit compromised by your own biases that clearly influence your own coverage?

  • JWB

    I am puzzled by the last paragraph of the original post. It seems at best premature to speculate about the likelihood of either ecclesiastical or secular court proceedings unless tmatt knows something the sources he links to don’t mention. I frankly don’t see this as a big story for the mainstream media to continue to follow unless/until the new OCA primate is elected and that process evidences either unity or further division, and if the latter along what lines.

  • Maureen

    So — if commenters elsewhere are right, and this is a matter of the bishops thinking that Met. Jonah was being too monarchical and not being collegial enough, why don’t people just come right out and say so? And provide three examples?

  • JWB

    The other oddity about tmatt’s formulation of “old guard” “idealistic young leader” is that 4 of the 9 bishops who (supposedly) unanimously requested the resignation have only been on the Holy Synod for 1 to 3 years and were only themselves elected to the episcopate after +Jonah became primate — and accordingly were all elected under circumstances where they at least could be publicly presented (rightly or wrongly) to not have been too closely tied to the discredited prior administration +Jonah was selected to get away from (some of the disgraced refugees from which found sanctuary in . . . the supposedly idealistic young Diocese of the South, of all places).

    One might also note that the idealistic/reforming impulse that swept +Jonah into office had built up its momentum by pushing +Nikolai and then +Herman into early “retirement” in ways that might not have happened in prior decades. So the story here might be more revolution-eating-its-children; once you get away from the “old guard” default pattern of the insiders tolerating (perceived or actual) episcopal dysfunction up to 7 times 70 and condemning anyone who complains about it in public, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. This may be more of a tragic story than the sort of good-guys/bad-guys narrative journalists love to find.

  • tmatt


    This is an editorial weblog and I stated my link to the story pretty clearly.

    “Traditionalist” is usually seen as a doctrinal term and, in this case, SOME of the critics of +JONAH would certainly not fit under that label.

    Now, the term “old guard” was used to refer to the tenure and positioning of many — repeat many, not all — of those who removed +JONAH. In a hard news report, it would rather easy to show that with hard stats on experience levels, years in their posts, etc.

    Critics and supporters — both — of the metropolitan have said that he was highly inexperienced and, in the end, too idealistic.

    So it would be easy to defend these terms in hard-news coverage. In an editorial weblog, that are actually rather mild.

  • tmatt

    Truth Unites:

    Silk certainly has every right to share his opinions. Please note, however, that he failed to note that my post openly mentioned my connections to the story. Rod Dreher has been open about his links to the doctrinal camps in the fight. And Silk? Any ties or sympathies in terms of social issues and doctrines?

    I trust that Silk would endorse my GetReligion post’s call for journalists to seek out informed and qualified voices on both sides of the debate. I hope that we can agree on that.

  • David J. White

    He also tried to shift the direction of the Orthodox Church in America, part of a constellation of churches separate from the Roman Catholic Church since the 11th century.

    I like the way this article describes the Schism. It acknowledges the fact of the Schism, without taking a position and ascribing responsibility — or primacy — to either side (as would be the case if the article had read, “which split from the RCC …” or “from which the RCC split …”. FWIW, I’m Catholic.

  • tmatt


    Secular courts often end up involved when salaries and benefits are involved.

    My post made it clear that reporters will need to investigate — using voices on both sides — the canon laws involved in the meetings, face to face and via telephone, that led to the metropolitan being removed.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    TMatt: “Please note, however, that he failed to note that my post openly mentioned my connections to the story. Rod Dreher has been open about his links to the doctrinal camps in the fight. And Silk? Any ties or sympathies in terms of social issues and doctrines?”

    Honestly, I didn’t see any.

    Does he state them elsewhere?

  • Mark Silk

    No ties to Eastern Orthodoxy. Since when are opinion pieces supposed to include explicit statements of the writer’s personal sympathies regarding social issues and doctrines? Yes, reporters should try to obtain a range of reactions.

  • Rod Dreher

    Because TMatt and I are partisans on these culture war issues, and Mark Silk is neutral? Really?

    Not wishing to argue with Father Stephen about all this, but for people who are unfamiliar with the broader context of this story, I have said time and time again that Metropolitan Jonah had big problems as an administrator. He has said twice, that I’m aware of, that he doesn’t have the temperament to be Metropolitan. Sadly, I agree with that, for a number of reasons. I cannot and do not blame the Synod for being frustrated with him on some points. Jonah is a victim, in my view, but not a blameless one.

    But the way they have treated him since February 2011 has been absolutely dishonest and absolutely disgraceful. We who have been following this story closely have publicized the e-mails, the backroom politics, and so forth, that have gotten the OCA to this state. GetRel is not the place to discuss these things, but I would like to point out to readers who aren’t aware of the details of this story that whatever Mark Silk and others may think, I do not believe this is by any means a simple “left vs. right” story, though I do certainly believe that the deeper struggles within most American churches, and in American culture, at the moment have played and are playing a key role in this tragedy. They by no means give us a total explanation, but they are real — and it is possible that Silk’s own biases, whatever they are, blind him to these facts.

    To make a media-centric point, it is really quite astonishing that at this point, church communications people, as well as church leaders, think that they can get away with “trust us” as a media strategy. I’m not talking exclusively of Orthodox people; I mean all church leaders. You cannot undertake a putsch against the primate of your church, especially one who was, rightly or wrongly, seen by most people as a good guy, and simply not tell the people in the pews why it was done. Leaving aside the complex realities of internal OCA politics, this is crazy as a communications strategy, especially for a church (the OCA) which has been widely and reasonably seen as having a weak and untrustworthy hierarchy, re: its inability to deal with misconduct and scandal. From a purely Machiavellian point of view, if the Synod was planning a move like this against Jonah, they ought to have had a media strategy in place, one that would have provided clear, credible information to the public. The PR releases that keep coming out of Syosset only further damage the credibility of the OCA leadership, because they say nothing beyond, “We did the right thing, so just trust us.”

  • Dean Arnold

    Slightly off-topic:
    David White: You, a Catholic, liked the reporter’s phraseology which did not give “primacy” to either side by calling the OCA “part of a constellation of churches separate from the Roman Catholic Church since the 11th century.”

    Would you have felt similarly if the reporter said, “The Roman Catholic Church has been separate from Orthodoxy’s constellation of churches since the 11th century.” ?

    I took your comment in good spirit, I really did. But I couldn’t resist.

  • John Bissell

    We got to know two Orthodox Nuns in DC who approached us in order to partake in a similar Ministry. They said they had come from Greece at the request of Jonah. They were working to start a hospice for Infants and Children. My sense was he wanted the the Orthodox Church to become Active as well as Contemplative particularly related to the Defense of Life. I hope these initiatives don’t end with his removal.

  • Vladimir Lefleur

    I weep in dispare at the OCA.This church had the potential to do great things with help from Moscow and ROCOR.Metropolitan Jonah appeared to try to stear OCA back to traditional Orthodoxy so the powerful of this world did him in.
    I hope ROCOR take him and all others from the OCA in and then Moscow and all others wash their hands of the remaining rabble.I saw in Metropolitan Jonah someone who. wanted the OCA who wanted to return the OCA to what it should be Orthodox first American second.
    with love in Christ.