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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