Metropolitan Jonah goes to Washington

March 20, 2011

They appeared at the edge of the crowd on the Mall, a group of men seemingly out of a distant century. Their heads were crowned with klobuks, the distinctive headgear of Orthodox clergy. Sporting black cassocks and untrimmed gray beards, with golden icons dangling from their necks on long chains, these visitors stood out among the crowd clad in jeans and winter coats. The man in their center carried a bejeweled walking stick.

Metropolitan Jonah, 51, leads the Orthodox Church in America, the second-largest Eastern Orthodox body in the United States. He was there to rally the huddled masses waiting in the freezing air to begin the March for Life, the annual demonstration protesting the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide. His aim was to boost Orthodox participation in political issues. But his efforts to change the OCA would spark a ferocious reaction from his own bishops one month later. At issue is the very nature of Orthodoxy in the New World.

The tensions began with Jonah’s surprise election as head (or “metropolitan”) of the OCA in late 2008. The new leader, who is the first native-born convert to head the church, wasted little time instituting change. He put word out to his bishops and seminarians that their presence was expected at the March for Life, held every January. It was time, he would later tell a reporter, for the Orthodox “to step out in the public square” on a number of social concerns, including abortion. To encourage such stepping out, Jonah also decided to move the offices of the OCA from its isolated Syosset, N.Y., chancery to St. Nicholas Cathedral in Northwest Washington.

On the morning of the march, Jonah preached an uncompromising Gospel at the cathedral. “We need to see and call things what they are and not in some disguised politically correct language,” he said, dressed in resplendent gold brocade vestments, his salt-and-pepper beard making him appear like an Old Testament prophet. “Abortion is the taking of human life.”

Jonah continued: “So often, people think that if we name sin for what it is, that we’re judging people. No, we’re just pointing out reality. It is not a matter of judgment to say abortion is a sin. It is not a matter of judgment to say that homosexual activity is a sin. It is a matter of simply stating the truth of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.”

A few hours later at the march — while 80 Orthodox seminarians from New York and Pennsylvania stood, shivering, underneath a large “Orthodox Christians for Life” sign — Jonah told his listeners to stand firm against “the plague of abortion.” He received a rousing ovation. As he swept away down the steps, various clergy kissed his hand, and Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl came up to greet him.

“He is energetic and anxious to move quickly,” said the Rev. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary who had accompanied several dozen students to the rally. “Jonah is not as cautious as some people would like him to be. He is bold, forthright and speaks his mind.

“Sometimes that can be messy.”

As Metropolitan Jonah already has found out.

***

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. St. Nicholas would be a hive of missionary work and outreach.

Jonah’s insistence that his church address the pressing issues of the day is a gauntlet thrown down before the feet of his fellow Orthodox leaders, and it has not sat well with the OCA’s governing bodies. In the last week of February, Jonah faced a revolt among his own bishops at a conclave in Santa Fe, N.M. According to an OCA news release, Jonah kept his job but was relieved of several duties and sent on a two-month retreat during Lent.

In reporting on the Santa Fe meeting, the news Web site Orthodox Christians for Accountability — an opposition voice against Jonah — assailed Jonah’s “leadership style, decisions, practices or actions.” Although many of the decisions in question had to do with internal church matters, the first one listed was Jonah’s move to Washington.

In an earlier interview, Web site editor Mark Stokoe, who is also a member of the church’s Metropolitan Council, or executive body, spoke out against the move. He called it “a major decision that should be considered carefully in the context of the finances and the strategic plan by the entire church. To play the game in Washington takes a lot of money, and the OCA is not a wealthy church.”

And Jonah says his mind is made up. The church’s drafty Syosset headquarters building, originally a summer cottage, is racking up enormous utility bills. And Washington, he adds, is the perfect home base for “a united Orthodox voice speaking out against iniquity or advocating good things.”

But just as not everyone believes the Orthodox should be speaking out, not everyone believes they need to be united.

***

The world’s Christians generally were united during their first millennium. The first break came in 1054, when medieval Christianity split in two over theological and papal issues. From then on, its western — or Latin — branch would be led by the bishop of Rome, otherwise known as the pope. Its eastern — or Greek — branch would fall under the bishop, or patriarch, of Constantinople, whose distant successor is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul.

These two expressions of world Christianity have vastly different rites and some diverging doctrines and practices. They disagree on the wording of the Nicene Creed, the major Christian profession of faith. The Orthodox allow married men to be priests; Catholics do not. Catholics believe in papal infallibility and primacy of the pope among the world’s bishops. The Orthodox do not.

Worldwide, there are 250 million Orthodox to 1 billion Roman Catholics. In the United States, the 1 million Orthodox are vastly outnumbered by about 68 million Catholics. The Orthodox took longer to anchor themselves in America than Catholics did, with multiple countries establishing their own national Orthodox churches on American soil, none of them wishing to merge.

In 1970, the Russians made their daughter church independent, naming it the Orthodox Church in America in the hope that other Orthodox bodies would unite under that title. The move infuriated several other Orthodox churches, especially the Greeks, the largest of America’s Orthodox branches at 477,000 members.

Of the top American Orthodox branches, the OCA, with about 85,000 members, has the highest percentage of Sunday service attenders at 40 percent weekly and has grown the most in the past decade, at 21 percent. Much of the growth has come from converts — evangelical Protestant ones at that — whose presence has helped steer the OCA in a more conservative direction.

***

Born in 1959 as James Paffhausen, Jonah was a church acolyte as a boy, says younger sister Laurie Paffhausen. Her brother was a tease, she remembers, who loved to cook and once served her octopus as a joke when they were teenagers. Even though their family roots were German, he was fascinated with Russian culture early on and painted icons in the family garage in La Jolla, Calif. “He is not the typical brother,” she said. “He’s got an amazing sense of humor. He’s driven.”

The Episcopal Church’s decision in 1976 to ordain women turned Jonah away from his denomination, she said, and he converted to Orthodoxy in 1978 as a college student at the University of California at San Diego. He got two master’s degrees from St. Vladimir’s, then began work on a doctorate. In 1993, after he turned 34, he took a year off from his job as a vice president of his father’s San Diego mortgage company to go to Russia.

At the time, Jonah had a girlfriend. If an Orthodox candidate for the priesthood wishes to marry, he must do so before ordination. Then, if his wife dies, he cannot remarry.

Jonah spent several months pondering his future at Valaam Monastery, north of St. Petersburg, where he was introduced to a venerable Orthodox elder known as Kyrill. “Should I get married, or should I become a monk?” he recalls asking Kyrill.

“Become a priest-monk,” the old man said.

Jonah was torn. “You count the cost and look to see if I could do this or not, and I decided yes, with God’s grace,” he says now. “Did I like the idea? Not particularly. I liked the world. I did want to get married and have a family. But I realized I had another path. The whole point of Christian practice of asceticism is you deny yourself what is good for what is better for you.”

As for the girlfriend?

“She did not react well.”

Jonah’s sojourn in Russia proved to be a smart career move. His contacts with the motherland, his reputation as an astute speaker at Orthodox spiritual retreats and his expertise as the founding abbot at St. John of San Francisco monastery in Manton, Calif., caught the eye of several dioceses. On Nov. 1, 2008, he was made bishop of Fort Worth.

Meanwhile, the OCA seemed bent on writing its own obituary. Scandalous news began leaking out in 2005: Its highest officials were accused of using at least $4.5 million in donations to cover personal credit card bills, pay sexual blackmail and support family members. By fall 2008, the church’s reigning leader, Metropolitan Herman, then 76 and in office for six years, had been forced out, a chancellor had been defrocked and many staff members in Syosset had been removed.

In November, shortly after Jonah’s appointment to Fort Worth, a council of stunned OCA leaders met in Pittsburgh to elect Herman’s successor. On Nov. 11, the little-known, newly appointed junior bishop gave an electrifying 31-minute speech calling for reform and talking bluntly about “corrupt” leaders who had “raped” the OCA and created a culture of “fear and intimidation” throughout the church.

“He was wildly received,” Metropolitan Council member Stokoe remembers. “Jonah clearly stood out after his speech the night before the election. At the end of the day, here was a fresh-faced bishop who had no involvement in the scandal.”

The next day, Nov. 12, more than two dozen names, including Jonah’s, were on the first ballot to elect a new metropolitan. The council gave Jonah a majority on the second ballot; he was elected in a final vote in which only the OCA bishops were allowed to cast ballots. When the waiting crowd saw its new metropolitan, vested in a light blue cape and white klobuk, it applauded passionately.

That evening, Jonah called his family to break the news. He seemed so ebullient that his sister remembers asking, “Are you tripping?”

“This is the biggest trip on the planet,” he told her.

***

Within months, Jonah was making waves inside and outside the church. At an Orthodox gathering at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas in April 2009, Jonah called the leadership of Patriarch Bartholomew “a foreign patriarchate . . . under Islamic domination.”

Jonah said of his plan to unite Orthodox Americans, “I think we have a better solution.”

His remarks went viral, and criticism poured in; two days later, he apologized for his “uncharitable” statements. OCA leaders would continue to fume over Jonah’s lack of tact.

Last May, another controversial communication ended up on the Internet: a letter to the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplains Board about the proposed end to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Jonah threatened to pull his 26 OCA clergymen (more than half the total number of Orthodox chaplains) out of the military if they were forced to officiate at same-sex unions or to condone homosexual behavior. An Orthodox priest would minister to a gay person by calling on him or her “to repent, to change his or her lifestyle, to renounce the ‘gay identity’ and to embrace a Christian lifestyle of chastity, . . .” Jonah wrote. “The Orthodox Church firmly opposes the validation of homosexuality in any form.”

No other Orthodox leaders spoke up alongside him. He stood alone until the Rabbinical Alliance of America, an Orthodox Jewish group, issued a similar statement, as did Catholic Military Archbishop Timothy Broglio. To date, Jonah has not pulled any chaplains out of the military.

Not everyone agreed with his approach. “Many were embarrassed by it, for its overstatement,” Stokoe said of Jonah’s letter. “It is one thing to affirm a position, quite another to say, ‘It will be the end!’ when clearly, it will not be.”

Others said it was about time the head of a Christian denomination took a stand on this issue. “The word in OCA circles is that Jonah has angered some of the old guard by his outspokenness on hot-button culture-war issues like abortion and gay marriage,” said former Beliefnet.com columnist Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian from Philadelphia. “The teaching of the Orthodox Church on these points is crystal clear, and thank God, Jonah is making himself seen and heard. Where are the other Orthodox hierarchs? Christian witness in the public square requires more than showing up for kebabs and folk dancing.”

Added Dreher: “Jonah is not perfect, but he’s the leader we need right now.”

Hatfield, the seminary chancellor, thinks the “don’t ask, don’t tell” letter was merely Jonah’s opening salvo. “Jonah is coming to terms with a vision where he wants to take the church,” he said, “and it involves being high-profile in the vexing issues of the 21st century.”

But being high-profile has become a vexing issue for the OCA, some of whose members see Jonah as an inexperienced leader who has moved too fast and has made major miscalculations in trying to change his church. Their new metropolitan is not expected to make any further moves until the end of April, when his Lenten rest comes to an end.

The freshly chastened Jonah does not seem to be abandoning his principles, however. He appeared before worshipers at St. Nicholas Cathedral on the last Sunday in February, just after his disastrous meeting in New Mexico. Clutching his crosier in his left hand, his eyes cast down, he read from a statement denying “inaccurate reporting on the Internet stating that I had been deposed, that I had resigned or that I am on a leave of absence.” He would be going on retreat, he said, but this would be no hideout in an isolated monastery. Instead, he would be spending time with family and attending and celebrating liturgies at his Washington cathedral, the place he had made his new home.

“I am still your metropolitan,” he said. “I am still your diocesan bishop. I am still the active primate of the Orthodox Church of America. . . . l I love you. . . .” He then paused as he battled tears. “I thank you for your continued support and prayers. . . . Now, let us forget about what lies behind and push forward to what lies ahead.”

Julia Duin, whose most recent book is “Days of Fire and Glory,” is a religion writer living in Maryland. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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