New U.S. Orthodox church leader faces ‘immense’ task

Author: Chris Herlinger
Date Published: 02/25/2009
Metropolitan Jonah. Photo: John Constantine / OCA
Metropolitan Jonah. Photo: John Constantine / OCA

New York (ENI). The new head of the Orthodox Church in America, which is trying to shake off years of internal problems and financial scandals, says he “laughs off” any comparison made between himself and U.S. President Barack Obama as a reformer and agent of change.

“I don’t see myself as anything so radical,” Metropolitan Jonah said in a recent interview with Ecumenical News International, following his 28 December installation as prelate of the Syosset, New York-based church. “Very honestly, I put little time in thinking about myself,” Jonah said. “I see my ultimate task as not discerning my vision, but discerning what is God’s will for the church.”

Born an Episcopalian (Anglican), Jonah had served less than two weeks as the OCA bishop in Fort Worth, Texas, before being elected on 12 November as the Metropolitan of All America and Canada at a denominational council meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Some observers said this was due to Jonah’s eloquent call for both reform and renewal of a church shaken in recent years by high-level scandals.

In late 2005, a former OCA treasurer accused the church’s national administration of financial misconduct. An internal investigation in September 2008 confirmed massive internal and financial problems within the church’s top administration and recommended discipline for five officials, including Metropolitan Herman, the then OCA primate. He was asked either to retire or resign or face the possibility of being defrocked.

The day after the report was released, Herman announced his retirement.

Mark Stokoe, the editor of an independent news service called Orthodox Christians for Accountability that covered the allegations, told ENI that Jonah “has the good fortune of inheriting a 2000-year-old tradition, which offers stability and calm in difficult times.

“By the same token, 2000 years of tradition can be dead-weight hindering solutions to real problems, if a desire to calm things is mistaken for achieving stability,” Stokoe said. “Trying to recreate past glories will not address our current problems.”

George Matsoukas, executive director of Orthodox Christian Laity, wrote in the news service, “Stokoe’s dogged insistence that the OCA must confront the corruption compelled the Metropolitan Council and the Synod to act in ways that affirmed the value of accountability and transparency.”

For his part, Jonah said, “There is a lot of ‘internal reformation’ that has to take place in the church.” He noted that the church needs to put into place systems of administration and accountability that will put it on par with “a 21st century, U.S. non-profit” organization.

Other goals include making the OCA a far more visible presence within the United States, though more vigorous missionary work. Jonah notes that already 60 percent of some one million OCA laity, 70 percent of its clergy and 90 percent of its bishops are, like Jonah, converts from other denominational traditions.

Jonah also wants to promote Orthodoxy unity within the United States and for U.S. Orthodox churches to explore the creation of single synod and patriarch as a long-term goal.

Metropolitan Jonah was born James Paffhausen in Chicago, later moving with his family to California. After graduate theological studies in the United States and spending time in Russia as a monastic novice, he formally became a monk at a Pennsylvania monastery in 1995 and was given the name Jonah.