To be on the Mall around noon Monday was to be confronted with a vast crowd of what appeared to be mostly Catholics assembled for the annual Right to Life March. There were students wearing hats and scarves bearing the name of seemingly every Catholic academy on the Eastern seaboard; crowds of nuns clad in all manner of habits and scores of dark-suited priests and seminarians waving banners and signs.
Closer to the stage one could spot several Orthodox Jews and several who appeared to be evangelical Protestants. Then the crowd parted and up on the stage marched a phalanx of black-cassocked Eastern Orthodox clergy led by Metropolitan Jonah, leader of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Carrying a bejeweled walking stick and wearing a white crown-shaped miter, the metropolitan and the five bishops lined up beside him provided quite a contrast to the informally dressed crowd.
Talking with these Orthodox afterward, I learned that Jonah had put out word that every bishop who could make it to Washington for the march was expected to be there, along with 80-plus seminarians from two Orthodox seminaries: Saint Tikhon’s in Pennsylvania and Saint Vladimir’s in New York. The seminarians and their friends stood in a large clump off to the side, waving a large Orthodox Christians for Life banner.
All of the bishops present belonged to the OCA, the second-largest of three major Orthodox bodies in the United States. I was told there was no official there from the much larger Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America nor from the third-largest body: the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.
Unlike evangelical Protestants and Catholics, the Orthodox in this country haven’t been known for taking to the streets as antiabortion activists. What I did find on the official Greek Orthodox Web site was a statement calling abortion “immoral” and “murder.” Likewise, the Antiochans condemn it in this statement on their site, adding that church fathers from apostolic times opposed it as well. They also posted an encouragement to take part in Monday’s march. Plus, Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the best-known antiabortion activists of any denomination, is married to an Antiochan Orthodox priest.
So, why weren’t higher-ups from other Orthodox bodies out there braving the 25-degree weather Monday? It might have to do with Metropolitan Jonah making it a priority. Not only did he show up at the march soon after flying back from a visit to Moscow, he also officiated at a Divine Liturgy Monday morning at St. Nicholas Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue for those involved in the march. Standing in front of the congregation in elaborate gold brocade vestments, he challenged listeners to oppose abortion “whatever the cost.” He added, “being a Christian is not about what you do in church on Sunday.” One can perform the rituals, he said, “But if you don’t live according to the Gospel, that will condemn you to hell.”
I asked Jonah why he felt it necessary to call out the troops instead of leaving the heavy lifting to the Catholics and evangelicals.
“The church’s responsibility is to be the conscience for the culture,” he said. “The Orthodox Church in this country is emerging from being an embassy of foreign cultures to being an authentically American church.”
And there’s nothing much more American than taking part in street protests.