These are a few preliminary reflections on the momentous events of the recently-concluded AAC in Pittsburg. I will write today of what was positive, and later about the negative. There were also developments with a bit of both.
Overwhelmingly, the great event of the Council was the wholly unexpected election of Bishop Jonah of the South to the position of Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. This sent more than a "buzz" through the crowd of hundreds of delegates. It was more like a powerful current of energy. Bishop Jonah, at the time of his election on Wednesday, had been a bishop for only eleven days! Although not without precedent, this was something approaching "historic." He was consecrated as Bishop of Fort Worth and auxillary bishop of the South by Archbishop Dmitri in Dallas on November 1. I cannot imagine that (m)any Council participants arrived in Pittsburg believing that the Council would present Bishop Jonah as a viable candidate to be chosen by the Holy Synod as the new metropolitan. His name was not initially heard in the corridor gossip of the delegates. It was "shocking" in the good sense of the word - an unpredictable event that "in the twinkling of an eye" transformed the entire Council into a lively and hopeful body. The movement toward this unlikely choice began on Tuesday evening, following what some have described as a stirring talk by Bishop Jonah to the assembled delegates. I encountered this rapidly-spreading sentiment on Wednesday morning, before we began filing into the Plenary session ballroom, and it obviously continued to swell and gain momentum. The first ballot found Bishop Jonah with the most votes, and with Archbishop Job with the second most votes. The second ballot confirmed those two choices by further distancing them from the other candidates. With these two candidates clearly being the Council's choices, the Synod withdrew to behind the sanctuary curtain to make the final decision. The Holy Synod then chose Bishop Jonah to be the new metropolitan to the continued surprise and delight of many. Loud and heartfelt cries of "Axios!" (He is worthy!) reverberated throughout the assembled body. I can assure you that the happiest person at the Council at that moment was Archbishop Job. He did not consider himself qualified for the position and did not want the position. He was profoundly relieved when it was all decided.
What exactly happened? Why such a break with past tradition? I am far from being an "insider," so I can only offer my own speculation based upon that endless stream of gossip, conjecture, and endless talk alluded to above that accompanies such events with an uninterrupted flow of speculation. (Everyone indulges in it, but after awhile it gets tiresome. By the end of the day, you just want to take a walk, a cleansing shower, or lay your head on a pillow and drift off, exhausted, into a peaceful sleep). There is something of an art to separating the wheat from the chaff. Basically, however, it got down to a deeply felt need for real change and a new beginning. The black hole of our scandal was sucking the life out of the OCA, and the election of an untainted candidate with a good reputation now seems like not only a brilliant and spontaneous response by an alert body, but the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church to a future of renewal. Archbishop Job was thus in an ambiguous position as the mood of the Council unfolded. Although he cleary embodied integrity and a desire for uncovering the truth, endlessly repeated by his supporters; he was also seen as a representative of the Synod of Bishops that failed in its stewardship and vigilance. Inescapably, he also embodied the "old guard," and it was this tainted association with the past fifteen years that took some of the life out of his role as an agent of honesty and openness. Nevertheless, he did capture many of the delegates hopes and votes, being the second choice by far. No other candidates were close. This means that the delegates strongly rejected the past, refusing to accept, but rather seeing through, the shameful attempts at cover-up and dissimulation. Did the Holy Synod choose for change, or was their election of Bishop Jonah an "anti-Job" declaration? Fortunately, it does not matter. We now have the openness of the unchartered but promising future before us. "If God is with us, who can be against us"?
As I openly stated to the parish, I voted for Archbishop Job. On the second ballot, when we are instructed to write down two names, I wrote the names of Archbishop Job and Bishop Jonah. I saw the wisdom of this choice. For me it was not exactly an "Obama moment," as many were calling it based upon the obvious parallels of the two elections; but I am quite satisfied with the decision for an untested but untainted voice of an apparently enthusiastic young bishop who has the Gospel of Christ foremost in his mind and on his "agenda." I know more than a few persons who know Metropolitan Jonah well, and they unanimously speak of him with great admiration and respect. Every time he spoke he returned us to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, together with love of God and neighbor expressed through a living faith. All of this adds up to making his election a turning point in our future. Only God knows and time will tell.
Next week: The Negative
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is the parish rector of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, OH. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he teaches in the theology department.