Sobornost in Action
The meetings of the Holy Synod are confidential until minutes are approved and released for publication, but yesterday was an excellent example of sobornost in action on a difficult topic, with hierarchs, clergy and lay staff and advisors working together and I would like to give you a sense of how it all looked from the inside.
For the start of the Holy Synod meeting, the opening prayer service and Metropolitan’s address the bishops gathered in St Sergius Chapel, where all the Synod sessions take place, together with the chancellor, secretary, members of the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee (SMPAC), the Coordinator of the Office for review of Sexual Misconduct Allegations (ORSMA), two canonists, the chair of the Legal Committee and the OCA’s legal counsel. The Synod’s agenda for the day would be dominated by discussion on the revised Policies, Standards and Procedures on Sexual Misconduct (PSPs) plus legal and canonical matters, and the Metropolitan wanted others who are working in this area—not just the bishops—to hear what he had to say. The revised PSP’s are a long document and many hands have worked on it for three years. In May the bishops considered an earlier “final” draft and came back with a number of questions for clarification. In July they considered the working draft and a number of bishops sent the document to their deans and others for comment, since it was never a “secret” text. The Holy Synod set aside this time in October, when they meet face to face, to invite SMPAC and advisors to join them as they deliberated and came to a final decision.
After the opening address His Beatitude asked everyone except the bishops to leave the chapel so the Synod could have a closed session. When we returned about an hour later we discovered that the bishops had gone through the proposed PSPs page by page to see if there were any further objections or questions about the 33-page, single-spaced text. Together then, for the next three hours or so we returned to each of the points the bishops raised, answering questions, changing the text as necessary and discussing back and forth on substantive issues. Over lunch SMPAC met separately to make the mainly slight revisions to the text and this was brought back to the afternoon session. At that point we were almost there, until a new question was raised that needed further discussion and textual revision before all the bishops could agree to approve the PSP’s. When they were ready, His Beatitude called the roll, not for a vote but to assure consensus, and in order of seniority the bishops each said “yes.”
So, by a wonderful process of deliberation, discussion, debate, and finally episcopal consensus, the revised PSP’s were adopted by the Holy Synod on October 15, 2013. No one thinks they’re perfect, and the document itself presupposes that it will constantly be reviewed and revised as it is field-tested. But the church needs a definitive policy to guide parishes, laity, clergy and bishops in this vital area. It was an inspiring day when it appeared to many of us that the Holy Spirit was working through this apparently mundane process. Hierarchy and conciliarity. Sobornost. These are hallmarks of the OCA’s vision and life. And by God’s grace, it works.