Scandals and divisions plaguing the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) have been almost ignored by the media, yet the turmoil surrounding this small denomination has highlighted changes in identity affecting Eastern Orthodoxy, suggests Andrew Walsh writing in the magazine Religion in the News (Spring).
The OCA was once hailed as the leader in creating a non-ethnic and unified Orthodox Church in the U.S., but the ethnic membership of the denomination (based mostly in Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region) has been dissolving rapidly, while its “vision of ethno-Orthodox union hasn’t gained traction,” writes Walsh. At the same time, the denomination (along with other Orthodox bodies) has attracted a large and growing number of converts seeking its liturgical, moral and theological traditionalism.
But other OCA clergy and lay activists have a different vision of the church, working for a more modern, “conciliar” and democratic structure. All these developments add up to a divided and smaller, yet more far-flung religious body, “now consisting mostly of convert clergy and convert congregations … and arguably … thriving more in the Sunbelt (due to church plants) than in the Rust Belt,” Walsh adds. Modernists and traditionalists are battling over the direction of the church, particularly since financial and leadership scandals have recently hit the denomination. The most recent battle is over the leadership of head bishop Metropolitan Jonah (who is a convert himself), who was accused of acting unilaterally in making church decisions, such as forming new ties to other conservative groups, such as conservative Anglicans, and distancing the church from mainline and ecumenical partners, such as the Episcopal Church and the National Council of Churches.
The resulting battle pitted culture warriors, such as Rod Dreher, a recent convert and prominent conservative writer, and a conservative group, OCATruth.com, against a more liberal camp (also largely made up of converts) represented by another new online group, ocanews.org. Eventually, Metropolitan Jonah went on temporary leave and the new pressure groups dissolved, although the divisions remain. Walsh concludes that the culture wars are “now a pervasive presence inside even insular groups like the OCA.
Indeed, the dominance of converts in America’s smaller Orthodox churches has made this tradition particularly susceptible to culture war conflict, and perhaps a window on the American religious future …. The case of the OCA shows what happens when the inheritors of a tradition have become inconsequential, leaving the ‘choosers’ to fight to the bitter end for their competing visions of what the church should be.”
(Religion in the News, http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl)