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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