They appeared at the edge of the crowd on the Mall, a group of men seemingly out of a distant century. Their heads were crowned with klobuks, the distinctive headgear of Orthodox clergy. Sporting black cassocks and untrimmed gray beards, with golden icons dangling from their necks on long chains, these visitors stood out among the crowd clad in jeans and winter coats. The man in their center carried a bejeweled walking stick.

Metropolitan Jonah, 51, leads the Orthodox Church in America, the second-largest Eastern Orthodox body in the United States. He was there to rally the huddled masses waiting in the freezing air to begin the March for Life, the annual demonstration protesting the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide. His aim was to boost Orthodox participation in political issues. But his efforts to change the OCA would spark a ferocious reaction from his own bishops one month later. At issue is the very nature of Orthodoxy in the New World.

The tensions began with Jonah’s surprise election as head (or “metropolitan”) of the OCA in late 2008. The new leader, who is the first native-born convert to head the church, wasted little time instituting change. He put word out to his bishops and seminarians that their presence was expected at the March for Life, held every January. It was time, he would later tell a reporter, for the Orthodox “to step out in the public square” on a number of social concerns, including abortion. To encourage such stepping out, Jonah also decided to move the offices of the OCA from its isolated Syosset, N.Y., chancery to St. Nicholas Cathedral in Northwest Washington.

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