Fr. Gregory Jenson: The Orthodox Church and Civil Society

Source: Koinonia

Much like the Catholic Church, Mainline Protestant denominations and Evangelical Christians, the Orthodox Church is struggle to decide whether or not Christ has called us to take an active or a passive role in the world. By his example, Metropolitan Jonah has said we should be active–even proactive–while his critics, either out of fear of, or agreement with, the spirit of the age have opted for passivity. This at least is the conclusion that I would draw from the recent Washington Post profile piece about his Beatitude (you can read it here and my post on it here).

It seems clear that the Orthodox Church in America is internally divided between those who would rather not step out into the public square with the Gospel and those like his Beatitude are ready, willing and eager to do so. As in every human decision, people do or don’t do for a mix of reasons and just because two people agree on a course of action doesn’t mean they have the same motivation or goal. Some Orthodox Christians do not want to step into the public square because they are timid. But others really and truly want to see a naked, secular, public square. Yes, as in the wider culture, abortion and homosexuality are the hot button issues, but the underlying issue is the role of the Church in a civil society. The Metropolitan’s critics are arguing the Church has no role in the public square or, if it does, it must be subservient to the larger society.

What concerns me is not simply that there is a (hopefully) small minority in the Church who support a naked public square, legalized abortion and gay “marriage.” While I know there are senior clergy and lay leaders who simply reject the moral tradition of the Church on these issues, I think that their gentle apostasy has taken hold not because their arguments are convincing but to fill a vacuum. Having served in Rust Belt parishes, I know that many of the communities East of the Mississippi are simply afraid for their futures. Especially as the economy has shifted they’ve seen their own incomes drop and their children move away. Whether intentionally or not a minority is exploiting those who are afraid.

I’ve read the critics. Frankly their position is based in fear. Again and again they offer a variation of the argument that in some, unspecified way, Metropolitan Jonah is destroying the OCA. They don’t offer any proof, much less a concrete alternatives save to remind us that the best thing to do what we’ve always done. This is the same argument you hear in so many of our shrinking parishes. There people hold to the understandable, but false, hope that, somehow, we can go back to the days when the mills were running, the economy humming, our parishes were full and we could hope to see our children’s children marry and raise a family. Saying that we just need to do what we’ve always done is cruel because it exploits the fears of those who have already lost so much because of economic dislocation and demographic shifts.

It is worth noting that with maybe one or two exceptions, Metropolitan Jonah’s critics are from the former centers of American Orthodoxy. His Beatitude’s supporters on the other hand come from the South and West, areas of the country where the Church is growing. Like it or not, in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and throughout the Rust Belt and the Mid-West, gone are the days when Orthodoxy was a cultural and familial given. So yes, there is certainly a liberal/conservative dynamic in all this. But I think we should not discount the pain and fear of people who have suffered economically as well as spiritually. It is a sad irony that in rejecting Metropolitan Jonah, the suffering Orthodox Christian communities in New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, and the formerly industrial Mid-West are rejecting an approach to Church life that offers the best hope for the long-term viability of their parishes as well as for keeping their children and their children’s children in the Church.

Whether or not the Orthodox Church has a future in America—and I think it does—it only does to the degree that it looks like Metropolitan Jonah. Like it or not, and there are those who don’t like it, his face is the face of the Church’s foreseeable future. What he brings to the table is an approach to Church life that is frankly and unapologetically entrepreneurial and not managerial. More to the point, it is an approach that builds the Church numerically and spiritually. Let me explain.

To those accustomed to the top-down approach, the bottom-up approach of an entrepreneur can often seem impulsive, chaotic and (ironically) autocratic. But it isn’t, or it need not be. It is a style that favors local knowledge over the theoretical knowledge of centralized, and centralizing, administrative authority. Being entrepreneurial doesn’t mean that Holy Tradition is discounted but rather that the Tradition is put at the service of helping the individual, the parish, and the diocese more fully understand and incarnate their unique vocations within the context of the whole Church. Do this and the Church grows quantitatively and qualitatively.

Unfortunately we have generally taken a more managerial and bureaucratic approach that says the individual believer, the local parish and diocese are at the service of the central Church administration. This is a constant complaint across all the Orthodox jurisdictions; the local serves the “universal,” whether that “universal” is the parish, the diocese or whatever form the national Church takes in the given jurisdiction. And just as the entrepreneurial approach builds the Church, the best managerial approach can offer is managed decline.

If my analysis is correct I think it goes a long way to understand why some are upset by Metropolitan Jonah. Especially in the historical centers of American Orthodox experience, what is unique in to the person or the parish has often been minimized if not ignored and even rejected. Our managerial approach to Church polity has historically often confused communion with conformity and consensus with capitulation to the group. And it has done so to the detriment of the individual believer (clergy AND laity), parish and diocese. To those who have become conditioned to think of Church life as a zero sum game (which more often than not means “I” lose and “they” win) an entrepreneurial approach, that is to say an unapologetic evangelical approach that embraces an explicit proclamation of the Gospel in the public square, would be terrifying. We are wrong when we think that new people, new ideas, can only come at our expense.

So I’m clear, this fear is understandable but wrong and based in a Satanic lie and must not be allowed to take hold in our hearts, in our parishes or our dioceses.

Yes, there is a power struggle in the OCA and really in all the Orthodox jurisdictions in America. I would even suggest that this conflict is being played out internationally among all the Orthodox Churches and it is happening for the same reasons we see it in America—we’ve adopted an implicit zero sum model of Church that confuses position with self-aggrandizement. But in Christ power, ecclesiastical or civil, is always in the service of others and His promise to us is that we will spread to the ends of the earth and always overcome the powers of sin and death.

Ironically the power struggle in the OCA isn’t the result of Metropolitan Jonah seeking power for himself. Rather it is rooted in his working to empower those who have historically been on the margins of life in the OCA. Yes, this wider dispersal of power does come at the expense of those who rather hold on to power for themselves—the gatekeepers in parishes, diocese and central Church bureaucracies will lose out—but for the majority of the faithful, laity, clergy and the bishops, this shift will be beneficial. It will even benefit the gatekeepers if only they will embrace it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


  1. Fr. Gregory, permit me to disagree. I am extremely sympathetic to the Metropolitan Jonah’s social activism. This is not the issue. I believe the issue is the Metropolitan has made some consistently poor decisions that compromise his leadership. I still believe with a clear conscience that Metropolitan Jonah’s desire to restore many of the protagonists from the previous regime to positions of authority is demoralizing and destroying confidence in the Church and his own ministry. Honestly, Metropolitan Jonah is exploiting some of the great virtues of the Church for selfish gain. He is preaching a phony forgiveness. Metropolitan Jonah has also shown that he has no desire to truly make whole those victims of the previous OCA administration. The perpetrators get to be forgiven while the victims of a compromised adminstration are left wondering why the new Metropolitan cares so little for them. What about people whose livelihood was affected by compromised leaders in the OCA. How about all that money? People wrongly profitted from this money and are now living comfortably. Can this be right? And then we have the whole “reimagining” autocephaly debacle.

    Metropolitan Jonah is correct to enter the public square. However, the Metropolitan has made consistently poor decisions. This decisions place him at risk of being compromised and manipulated. When the pressure is on can he tell right from wrong? Can he stand up to pressure within his inner circle and outside it? Can he separate how he feels about an issue with being right about an issue? Does he understand how his decisions have demoralized people? Can he transparently answer questions and explain his decisions? How does he respond to criticism and work with others? These are big red flags to me.

    Orthodox Christians have every right to question the Metropolitan and demand fatherly accountability.

    I hope Metropolitan Jonah stays active in the public square. However, All of Metropolitan Jonah’s social activism is for nothing if he cannot make healthy decisions and understand that he has made serious mistakes. American Orthodoxy cannot endure more compromised leaders and we cannot place our future at risk by restoring people with proven leadership problems to positions of authority.

    • Geo Michalopulos :

      Andrew, permit me to add a few points which cause me to discount much (but not all) of the criticism leveled against HB:

      1. The “restoration of many of the protagonists” from the previous administration is clearly problematic. However in one major regard –that of Fr Fester–I have yet to hear one sollid accusation against him. What I keep hearing is some variation of “he was friends with Kondratick.” Well, I’ve gone on record as saying “I was a huge fan of Mark Stokoe.” I quote his research (which is top-notch) extensively in my own book. Does that make me complicit in his latest smear campaign? This is guilt by association. As for Kondratick, I must confess that I was flabbergasted to find out just last week that when push came to shove, the Attorney General of New York felt that the case against him was weak and decided not to prosecute. I still don’t know what to make of that.

      2. The heinous crime of +Jonah not spending anytime in Syosset. This clearly shows the bad faith of those arrayed against him. I just found out today that during his entire five years as Metropolitan, Herman live 24/7 at St Tikhon’s in Pennsylvania. How come +e Jonah’s critics weren’t outraged then?

      3. The stunning inability of the accuser to find one criminal, felonious, or unethical act committed by HB. The viciousness of their attacks lack all perspective.

      4. Your assertion that +Jonah’s “phony forgiveness” of the miscreants was for his “own selfish gain.” Could you elaborate on that? Do you mean that these miscreants have given HB some of their ill-gotten gains?

  2. George, allow me to answer your questions briefly and clearly. I know we disagree here but I respect your words and friendship here.

    In order of your points, allow to point out the following:

    1)The SIC detailed grave problems in the former members of the old administration. Is the SIC true? YES

    2)I could care less whether Syossett exists or not. This is not the issue in my opinion. Want to move everyone to DC? No problem. However, the Metropolitan should take his case to the people and better explain himself. Jonah should read up on Ronald Reagan who could charm the pants off his adversaries and would often take his case directly to the people.

    3)This is not about Its about bad decisions that are simple to see. However, I value Fr. Hopko’s letter and have no reason to doubt his opinion.

    4)I want to make it clear that I believe the Metropolitan did not take any money. I am sorry for this understanding. I do emphatically believe that Metropolitan’s phony forgiveness campaign is set up to put people around him who he feels good about. Its about what HE wants and is therefore selfish. Real forgiveness does not place people at risk of being harmed. How he feels about people is much more important than being right about people and leading the Church. This affects all his decisions and there have been some bad decisions if you ask me. The Metropolitan is so compromised by Orthodox sentimentality in my eyes that he cannot effectively govern as a bishop should. He loves Orthodox fantasy more than reality. I see a consistent pattern of bad decisions. I see a leader who is a serious risk of being compromised. I see a leader who makes not effort to explain himself to his flock. I see a leader who is more concerned with feelings rather than the truth.

    • George Michalopulos :

      Andrew, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I too respect your opinions and friendship. Please accept the following responses in that light.

      1. Honestly, I don’t know if the SIC report is true. I don’t know that anything that came from Stokoe’s pen is true anymore. And I quoted him extensively in the past. The SIC report may be true, it may not be. Regardless, it doesn’t rise to the level of criminality or justify the hateful rhetoric that has emanated from Syosset towards HB. It just doesn’t.

      2. I may be older than you, and yes, the Gipper did charm the pants off of people. But he also caused massive heart-attacks over at the State Dept when he called the USSR “the Evil Empire.” There were other bon mots from him that caused an unreasoning hatred from the Left.

      3. Not all these decisions are “bad to see.” They may appear to be that way but when we look at the context, maybe +Jonah had no choice but to totally disrupt the old corporate culture of the OCA. I know we do things slowly as a rule, but the fact remains that Garklavs, Stokoe, et al were clearly acting in bad faith and actively undermining +Jonah. Yes, I will say that the actions of some of these actors are actionable (in the opinion of an attorney who I know).

      4. I’m not sure the “forginess campaign” is “phony.” Again, on first blush, I’d be inclined to agree with you. And please remember, I actually agreed with Stokoe’s original posting from three weeks ago. But now we know that he was acting in complete bad faith. All of his postings since that day (and probably years before) are in actuality the fruit of a poisoned tree. He’s actually made a fool out of a lot of us, me especially, because I defended him in the past.

      As for my own worldview, I tend to take the big picture. I remember vividly the reign of +Iakovos of the GOA. There were far worse missteps, even terrible breaches of canons than anything +Jonah is being accused of. Yet most reasonable people today view his forced resignation by the CP as a disaster of the first magnitude. I don’t know what the future holds for Orthodoxy in America. It may very well die out here just as it has died out in “Proussa,” “Iconium,” “Chalcedon,” “Antioch,” and the other fantasy “metropolitinates” of the Old World. If that is the case, then it is probable that historians in the future will view the ouster of +Iakovos as the turning point which set us on the path to terminal decline.

      It gives me no great cause for joy to write what I just did, but let us remember what +Iakovos’ magnetic personality and charismatic style meant for American Orthodoxy. It was under him that Ligonier bore fruit and he was seen as a beloved candidate to be Metropolitan of an autophalous church. So what is my point? A man like +Iakovos arises only once in a great while. And yes, I do see +Jonah as being the only hierarch on the scene right now who is capable of filling this role. If nothing else, he is the only one who is willing to take Orthodoxy out of its Rust Belt ghetto/dhimmi mentality. If he fails, the ghetto will be our future. And oblivion.

      I don’t mean to offend. Please forgive me, but I can’t say it any other way.

      • No worries George, we are in agreement 95% of time time. Allow me to leave you with this thought: Metropolitan Jonah has goals and aspirations for the Church. I do not dispute that his aspirations are noble. However, the path to reaching these goals are not set in stone -there are many ways to reach a goal and there is more than one path to a vibrant united American Orthodox Church. The methods of Orthodox leaders are just as important as the message of Orthodox leaders.

        • Geo Michalopulos :

          Andrew, what you say is quite possibly true. I pray you are right. From why I am finding out about the ‘back-story” of the mess in the OCA indicates to me on the other hand that though you are right in theory, at present there are only two ways of doing things: the dynamic way or the lethargical way and that the Lethargists in any jurisdiction very often have the upper hand.

      • George, your assertion that:

        Honestly, I don’t know if the SIC report is true.

        Goes against the very words and public statements of Metropolitan Jonah himself (back in 2008). +Jonah very clearly said — regarding the spiritual and financial crisis that ravaged the OCA, which the SIC report investigated, evaluated, and reported on — that:

        The SIC [Special Investigations Committee] report, if you look at it in a certain way, basically said that the last two Metropolitans were corrupt, that they had abrogated their responsibility of leadership on all levels. So, is it a wonder why the Synod, being leaderless, would not function as well as it should?

        Is it a wonder? Because of the culture — that only a few knew about – of fear and intimidation which operated within the walls of the Chancery in Syosset, a culture which was fundamentally sick, and that has been removed. Thank God! Thank God!

        And so the bishops attended to their dioceses; and I think we all know how much in each diocese we love and care and respect our bishop. The problem is not in the dioceses, it is not in the parishes. The problem was in Syosset. The problem was in the Chancery, and because of that absolute vacuum of leadership in a sick, dysfunctional situation the church was looted. It was an expensive lesson, a very expensive lesson. …

        Yes, we were betrayed. Yes, we were raped. It’s over. It’s over. Let it be in the past, so that we can heal.” …

        A culture of intimidation, is alien to Christ. Unfortunately, this has been something that has prevailed in certain sectors and still prevails in certain sectors of the Orthodox Church. This demon needs to be exorcised. Intimidation, fear, is never appropriate.

  3. Andrew,

    Thank you for your comments and you charitable disagreement with my post.

    If I may, my post was in response to issues raised in the profile piece about Metropolitan Jonah. My point in writing the article was to address one particular piece of the discussion current in the OCA. Specifically what, if anything, should be the Church’s witness in the public square? Putting aside the hot button issues, this question matters not only because of the effect the Church might have on civil society but because of the effect civil society can, and does, have on the Church.

    At least in America, there are many instances in which the relationship between the Church and the society has been positive for the Church. I’m thinking here of the wide range of political and economic freedoms the Church has in America to pursue her own life without interference from secular authority. Maybe I’m overreaching here, I think that for the first time since the patristic era the Church in America is neither subject to persecution nor co-option by the State. This is an extraordinary blessing that (among things) leaves the Church free to govern her own internal life. Unfortunately, and as you allude to in your own posts here, we have not always exercised our freedom responsibly.

    Like I said, the influence of the civil society is not always a salutary one. I do think that there is, as I said, a division in the Church in America (and not just the OCA) between those who accept as normative the Church’s traditional moral teaching and those who don’t. While I’m appreciate that you and others have concerns about a range of administrative matters (some of which you raise in your own post), this isn’t what I was addressing in my article. In effect you’ve criticized me for not writing the article you wanted written. With this in mind let me turn to your criticism that Metropolitan Jonah has failed to care appropriately for those who were “victims of a compromised administration.”

    My first concern is that you (and others who have raised this issue) never say what, precisely, it is you want him to do. I’m not asking you to answer that here, and in fact I don’t think this is an appropriate forum for that discussion, but I would be interested in having a private discussion with you if you wish to do so. You can email via the “Contact Me” tab on my blog. Without however a specific plan, all he is being asked is to “do something.” This however is a recipe for pastoral and personal diaster and will result in even more damage to more people.

    At least in the case of those in the previous administration who have never been charged in either a civil or a spiritual court, I’m not sure what can or should be done. I don’t think that it appropriate, absent an adjudication of their guilt, to treat them as if they had were guilt. This isn’t justice, this is revenge. Ironically, it was the pursuit of revenge that lead to the chain of events that resulted in his Beatitude being elected primate of the OCA. Revenge, or at least bitter disappointment, is also at least one thread of the current criticisms of the Metropolitan.

    And this brings me to one of my own concerns.

    Someone emailed me privately and pointed out, rightly, that we invest a great deal of energy in determining the limits of the Church; where the Church is and ends and the world begins if you will. What we fail to do, is examine–much less respond to–the Church’s internal life, and specifically the chaos that results from our indifference to our own ecclesiastical (and personal!) inner life. This bring be back around both to your comment and my post.

    I said above that the civil society can, and does, effect the Church. One area where I think American civil society can have a potentially positive effect on the Church is matters of procedural and substantive justice. By procedural justice, I mean fairness in resolving disputes and the allocation of resources. Recent events in the OCA and other jurisidictions suggest to me that we do not do a good job on this issue.

    Substantive justice–that the right thing actually get done–is harder to achieve since (among other things) we don’t do a particularly good job procedurally AND we disagree about the extent to which the moral and canonical traditions of the Church are applicable today. Substantive justice will require that we have a serious and open conversation about our differences, For this to happen however will require that we learn to treat each other with more respect than we’ve seen of late.

    As a purely personal matter, and without reference to you, I think the difficulty we face today is that many people in the Church want many different things. Even in the rare instance when we are clear about what we want, we are not clear about how we are actually going to get what we want. For example, I’ve had more than a few conversations about psychological testing for seminarians and candidates for holy orders. These conversations are always difficult because people typically have only a vague sense that something isn’t right. Fair enough. But before I can refer someone for a psychological test, I need to know what the potential problem(s) is(are). “The boy just ain’t right” isn’t sufficient.

    Following on this, even when I can get a sense of what the concerns are, I’ve encountered resistance when it comes to practical issues such as cost and confidentiality and the real limits of any psychological test. Not infrequently what I find is that people aren’t looking for a therapeutic outcome but a punitive one. The desire is to punish not heal.

    The thing is, is that (in the short run at least) punishment is ALWAYS cheaper and easier. Punishment doesn’t ask of me anything more than that I be offended. And it doesn’t require from me anything more than I hurt the one who hurt me. Like I said, its cheap and easy. It’s also what got the OCA in the last mess.

    And, oh yeah, the punitive response isn’t the Gospel.

    In Christ,


  4. If they’re not illegal, Ecclesiastically or civilly, why are we so concerned about His Beatitude’s “methods?”

    • Macedonia 74,

      You ask the question that should be asked. A conflict over matters of style have now brought the OCA to a crisis and are causing great harm to many.

      Lord have mercy!

      In Christ,


  5. Scott,

    I think we are using the term “punishment” in different ways.


    • Scott Pennington :

      “Following on this, even when I can get a sense of what the concerns are, I’ve encountered resistance when it comes to practical issues such as cost and confidentiality and the real limits of any psychological test. Not infrequently what I find is that people aren’t looking for a therapeutic outcome but a punitive one. The desire is to punish not heal.

      The thing is, is that (in the short run at least) punishment is ALWAYS cheaper and easier. Punishment doesn’t ask of me anything more than that I be offended. And it doesn’t require from me anything more than I hurt the one who hurt me. Like I said, its cheap and easy. It’s also what got the OCA in the last mess.”

      Perhaps, Fr. Gregory. It’s hard to tell from what you wrote. You started out referring to psychological counseling for seminarians and then went into a generalization about punishment. Punishment, in the abstract or general sense, serves a very valuable purpose. If it did not, God Himself would not engage in it, threaten it, or direct His faithful to exercise an exclusive discipline in the Church toward those who commit open unrepentant serious sin. However, I decided to delete my comment seconds after I made it since you could be narrowly referring to the context of a seminarian referred to counseling for the purpose of “punishing” some type of unwanted behavior or attitude (similar in idea, but not intensity, to what occured in the former Soviet Union).

      • Scott,

        Thank you for helping me see where I wasn’t clear. I offered the example about psychological testing for seminarians as an illustration of a worrisome tendency I’ve seen in some parts of the Church to shame or humiliate people.

        I have to disagree with you when you say “Punishment, in the abstract or general sense, serves a very valuable purpose.” If the goal is to prevent a particular behavior punishment–under very narrow circumstances–can help extinguish the behavior. For example, a light slap on the hand to keep a child from reaching for a hot pan on the stove. So, to move to an adult, the the Church will excommunicate someone in the hope that he will repent and return to the Church. But even here we proceed with great caution.

        Unfortunately, and the rhetoric from Metropolitan Jonah’s critics are an example of this, we sometimes seem to be concerned not with repentance but degrading the person. As Macedonia74 said above (#4), there aren’t any moral, canonical or legal complaints against his Beatitude. People simply don’t like his management style or his vision of the OCA. While some of the complaints might be more or less serious, none of them justify holding him up to public scorn. It is this–and not the therapeutic use of Divine or Church discipline–that I meant by punishment.

        Thank you for helping me (hopefully) clarify my thoughts.

        In Christ,


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