Eastern Orthodox church politics are by definition Byzantine, but the defenestration of Metropolitan Jonah by the synod of the Orthodox Church in America over the weekend carries with it some larger significance for American religion as well. The OCA started out as Orthodoxy for the Russians in America, but it has become home to an influx of converts--come-outers from one or another of the Western denominations who see in the tradition's hoary liturgical practices and lineal identification with the most ancient sites of Christianity what they consider an über-authentic form of the faith.
In the process--and to the consternation of many ethnic old-timers--the converts tend to believe themselves called to gird their new faith for culture war against secularism and all its ways. And Jonah was among them--a former Episcopalian drawn particularly to the Russian monastic tradition who, thanks to a financial scandal that destroyed the moral standing of the rest of the OCA hierarchy a few years ago, found himself elected to run the joint while still a baby bishop. (For the story of how Jonah went about trying to make the OCA count in the councils of the religious right, check out my sidekick Andrew Walsh's blow-by-blow in the latest issue of Religion in the News.)
Last month, Jonah appeared before the Assembly of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), treating the breakaway denomination as an ally in "a coming realignment within Christianity"--the "split between those who hold to traditional, biblical faith as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church and the ecumenical councils; and those who espouse a secularized belief."
"As Anglicans," said Jonah, "you are no strangers to this: it is the reason you are here, and not in TEC [the Episcopal Church]." While the OCA synod does not exactly feel warm and cuddly towards the Episcopalians, this seems to have been one lone ranger escapade too many.
Among Jonah's spear-carriers was Rod Dreher, the sometime Dallas Morning News opinion writer who joined the OCA after becoming alienated from Catholicism by the sexual abuse scandal. Now blogging over at Pat Buchanan's American Conservative, Dreher broke the Jonah story on Sunday with a bitter diatribe against the synod.
They finally got him. What they don’t understand is that they probably signed the OCA’s death warrant in so doing — not because Jonah was necessarily an exceptional metropolitan (he had his problems as an administrator, and though a very good man, was temperamentally ill-suited for the job), but because the sleazy, corrupt way the Synod has handled this from the beginning shows them to be a pack of ravening wolves.
Nor is Dreher the only Jonahite to see in the normal messy politics of removing a highly problematic religious leader the end of the line for the entire religious body. But that seems hyperbolic. More likely, it's the end of the line for their membership in the OCA. For them, it's time to come out again, and find some place more amenable to their ideological politics. Increasingly, it's looking like they won't be able to find it Eastern Orthodoxy.
GetGetReligion Update: It was a bitter fight between "the OCA’s old guard and its idealistic young leader." Lest there be any doubt where (Orthodox convert) tmatt stands.