May 29, 2013

Nine months after resignation, American Orthodox primate is retired

Metropolitan Jonah was forced to resign as head of the Orthodox Church in America last July, but now, more than nine months later, the church and the former primate have reached an agreement on the details of his retirement. The brief and not-very-informative announcement from the OCA reads:
His Eminence, Metropolitan Jonah met with a number of members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America at Saint Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, PA and reached an understanding with the Holy Synod concerning his retirement.
The retirement agreement most likely has to do with finances. In his resignation letter, Jonah pleaded with the synod to consider his financial responsibilities, noting that he was the sole support for his parents and his (now deceased) sister. There is also speculation -- which I have no real way of evaluating, but which seems plausible -- that Jonah might want to leave the OCA altogether, negotiating to be released so that he could work with another American Orthodox church. There's some evidence Jonah has already begun to be active outside of the OCA.

If that's true, it might explain why the negotiation process has taken so long.

Jonah's resignation was offered and accepted last Summer. In his resignation letter, he noted he resigned "as per" the "unanimous request" of the Holy Synod, confirming rumors he was ousted. Since then, there's been confusion about whether or not his resignation meant he was retired or he was returning to duties as an archbishop, and a cryptic official announcement of "ongoing discussions" between the church and Jonah and lawyers, "motivated solely by a prayerful desire to achieve an appropriate resolution of matters of care and mutual concern."

In the last nine months there have also been calls from the OCA faithful for an investigation of the way in which Jonah's resignation came about, accusations that Jonah mishandled serious cases of clerical misbehavior, and lay investigations of the evidence supporting the allegations against Jonah.

He was head of the OCA for only about 3 1/2 years.

Jonah once described his time as primate of the American church as a "relentless barrage of criticism," but also "an administrative disaster."

Given the evidence, "an administrative disaster" also seems like to could describe the OCA itself.

Jonah rose to his position at a moment of crisis in the OCA. The church was accused of misusing millions of dollars of donations: paying personal credit card debts instead of purchasing Bibles, redirecting building funds to pay sexual blackmail, siphoning off monies for charities for family members, failing to document spending, and sometimes falsifying documentation. Large amounts of cash disappeared, and discretionary accounts were used liberally, without any kind of accountability. An internal investigation confirmed many of the allegations, discovered other improprieties, and found "an incredible failure at many levels to act responsibly."

This had been going on -- and being covered up -- since the late '80s, but the scandals erupted in 2008.

Jonah was chosen by the bishops to respond on their behalf at that moment. This was at partly because as the newest bishop, he was not associated with the scandal in any way. He wasn't tainted by the corrupt leadership. His answers and explanations were credible, and he was seen as an honest broker.

As the first US-born leader of the church that can trace its American history back to the 1794 mission of Russian Orthodox monks to Kodiak Island, Alaska, he was also the first convert to lead the church increasingly marked by the presence of converts. There was a lot of affection for Jonah among the converts. And there was a thought, in 2008, when he was elevated to archimandrite, then elected bishop, then metropolitan, that he was the one who could reform the institutions of the church, bring unity to the diverse Orthodox groups in the US, forge ties with Catholics and conservative Anglicans, mobilize and inspire the sometimes-alienated faithful, and enable the church to meet the challenges of 21st century America.

In retrospect, the hope in Jonah seems more than a little over optimistic.

Whether or not Jonah is to be held responsible for mishandling a priest accused of rape, and other scandals involving clergy, he didn't manage to transform the way the institution deals with such things. However one rates Jonah's administration, the church's underlying problems don't look like they have changed. To whatever extent he managed to restore trust in the institutions and the ecclesial authority of the OCA, the events of the last year would seem to have undone that work.

It's an open question as to how -- and whether -- the OCA will weather the next scandal.

At the time of Jonah's resignation, some said "the institutional church has to collapse in order to clear out the internal moral rot." Others said if you looked, you could see the institution's collapse happening in slow motion. As a new primate was selected and Jonah was involved in vaguely described legal negotiations, Rod Dreher, one of the more visible converts to Orthodoxy, wrote,
The OCA [now] has three living ex-metropolitans -- surely a record in world Orthodoxy, given that metropolitans typically serve until they die. The first two retired in disgrace, and Jonah, the reformer, was retired in large part because he stepped on too many toes of the old guard [....] 
There is so much anger and depression and radical loss of confidence in the leadership of the fast-shrinking OCA, especially the alienation of so many in the Diocese of the South, the only one of the church’s dioceses showing significant growth (and that’s not enough to make up for the losses elsewhere).
The faith and practices of Orthodox believers and the lives of parish communities are often only distantly related to the institutional authorities, but that doesn't mean doesn't mean the latter doesn't affect the former. Orthodoxy will of course continue as a minor presence in America. They make up .6 percent of the populace, fragmented into various, traditionally ethnic churches. It is at best uncertain, though, what part the OCA will play in that presence, and whether or not it will continue, as a non-ethnic church, to serve as a home for converts and to further Orthodoxy's influence in America.

The way in which Jonah retired, and the events that transpired between his resignation and retirement do not bode well for the OCA. The question is, what happens now? What will the retired OCA metropolitan be doing, and how will those who adored him respond?

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