CORRECTION: In a previous version of this letter, Jocelyn Bell incorrectly stated that The United Church of Canada is launching a $10-million initiative to expand the denomination’s presence nationally. In fact, the funding for the initiative is up to $1.5 million per year over three to five years.
For as long as our editorial staff can remember, journalists from this magazine have had an open invitation to attend the meetings of the United Church’s General Council Executive. The GCE is the church’s decision-making body between meetings of the full General Council. The 18 members of the GCE meet several times per year to vote on important things like budgets and governance and to address any emergencies.
So it was a shock to receive word in February that GCE meetings will now be closed, excluding the public, news media and even General Council commissioners. For Broadview, this means our access to information was suddenly reduced to an agenda, meeting materials, minutes and a briefing from the church’s public relations lead. None of that is equal to being in the room when decisions are made. We won’t hear the discussions, including questions, critiques or nuanced considerations.
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Often the work of arriving at a decision is as important as the decision itself. Unless the doors are reopened, we’ll be absent when the GCE hears important updates on its strategic growth plan, on developing antisemitism resources and on establishing an autonomous Indigenous Church. These issues matter deeply to churchgoing readers; our stories about them can also inspire non-members to learn more about the denomination.
General secretary Rev. Michael Blair says the church’s restructuring process led the GCE to reinterpret itself as “a governance body, unlike the General Council — and as a governance body, its meetings are closed.”
GCE member Arlyce Schiebout asserts in a blog that accountability and transparency can be accomplished in other ways, and that the GCE needs “a self-differentiated, non-anxious space for its discussion and decision-making.”
So what can Broadview do? We’ll simply have to take the information offered and redouble our efforts to report on the national church. In 2013, this publication and the United Church outlined our relationship in a signed covenant. Among other responsibilities, the magazine has the “duty to inform the readership…about the activities and directions of the United Church” and “to exercise the highest possible standards…of fairness and accuracy in its journalistic activities related to the United Church.”
This decision certainly makes it more difficult to fulfil our duties.
More on Broadview:
- United Church moderator responds to criticism over closing GCE meetings to media, public
- United Church’s General Council Executive closes doors to media
- The United Church has an ambitious plan to grow its membership
The bigger picture is this: the United Church is losing affiliates more rapidly than any other Canadian Christian denomination. At the same time, the church is launching an initiative of up to $1.5 million per year over three to five years to expand the denomination’s presence nationally. Given the steep decrease and the desire for growth, it seems like the wrong time to risk the denomination’s longtime reputation as an open and democratic institution.
In its governance renewal plan, church leaders say the GCE’s work is grounded in “acting in honourable and trustworthy ways through transparent and mutual communications.” I believe trust and transparency begin with access to information. And that open doors are essential to a healthy, informed and engaged church.
Jocelyn Bell is the editor/publisher of Broadview.
This editorial first appeared in Broadview’s June 2023 issue with the title “Closed Doors.”
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David Shearman says:
I have spent over forty years as a member of the Order of Ministry in the United Church. I have been active at all levels of the denomination in that time. I have never, ever encountered a denominational meeting which was closed, except at times when the body was dealing with personnel matters involving an identifiable individual or matters of solicitor/client privilege.
In that time I also served as a representative to two governing bodies under a Provincial Order in Council. Our consistent governance practice was to have closed meetings only for extremely limited subjects as described above.
An established governance principle of both of those bodies was that anyone was welcome to observe, including the media. If there were matters involving identifiable people or matters of solicitor/client privilege then the meeting was closed and went in camera (the United Church equivalent is going into Committee of the Whole under Burinot's Rules). That is the right and privilege of any governing body. We never considered, nor would the public ever tolerate operating entirely in camera.
I am disappointed that the General Council Executive has chosen to act entirely as a Committee of the Whole instead of using more appropriate governance practice. With all respect to the General Secretary and the General Council Executive members, the decision neither reflects our historical polity nor does it reflect the good governance practice of openness and transparency.
I hope the decision will be revisited in the near future and our denominational process and our good governance restored.
Carolyn Fraser says:
I am sorry to hear the United Church is going to become Close Door to a group of people whom I feel have a fair and open connection to what is happening in the world today. I do think being in the room to discuss what is happening in and outside the church walls is to be informed. I am sure there would be rules which would allow all to be respectful to the ideas and beliefs presented, to allow reasonable discussion to take place.
It appears that true journalism is going by the wayside. People hear something and respond with passion rather than sound thinking backed by facts.Of course nothing is black & white…grey is often there for discussion for the common good of all. We live in hope!🙏🤞
Virginia Sauve says:
I am shocked to learn that the United Church’s senior governing body has closed it doors to media, to the public and to basically everyone not on the council. What are you hiding? What us possibly to gain by hiding behind closed doors? We are not and never have been a secret society.
Marilee Iverson says:
I am tempted to withdraw my monthly donation to the church and redirect it to Broadview. I will think on that and look for more information before I decide. I am angry and need to take some space.
Margaret Collard says:
This is very sad news. I subscribe to Broadview and believe the printed updates and the views and journalism research is an important, transparent way for UCC members and adherents to keep abreast of what is important in the work of the church.
Norm Seli says:
I think to be fair, Broadview should note the number of times that they have sent representatives to GCE meetings in the past 4 years when they did have open access. There seems to be an inference that Broadview went to all of the meetings and have suddenly been barred from access and now have to figure out new ways to cover the United Church of Canada. It is my understanding that Broadview have been to very few GCE meetings in the past few years, and yet still managed to cover the United Church of Canada. This feels more like hurt feelings than an insurmountable roadblock to access and transparency.