A time of crisis is not the time to deliberate in secrecy

Published January 1, 2001

JOURNALISTS know that a story is never told as effectively as by someone who was there. Interviewing witnesses, making phone calls, reconstructing events – these are de facto essential tools of the trade, and yet they are always second best. There are nuances to events than can never be recaptured after the fact; there is the body language of the participants, there are tones of voice and glances, there is laughter, there is silence. Reading something about an event that went unwitnessed, talking to participants after the fact, these techniques might well provide the body of what happened, but they seldom recapture the soul.

That is the reason why the Journal’s reports on the recent meeting of the Council of General Synod which are published in this edition must be deemed incomplete.

A full half-day of this three-day meeting was spent in a closed session during which members of the council discussed the residential schools crisis. After a motion to move in camera was passed (almost, but not quite unanimously), it was explained that staff attending the meeting could remain, but that “the press” were to leave. This effectively excluded journalists from the Anglican Journal and no one else.

A few weeks before the meeting of CoGs, the house of bishops met and also discussed residential schools, again in camera. That meeting consisted of lawyers reporting to the bishops on certain situations. The lawyers themselves counseled a closed session on the grounds that were outsiders to attend, it might violate or be deemed a waiver of solicitor-client privilege. This was a legitimate concern. Once waived, solicitor-client privilege cannot be reclaimed.

There was, however, no such issue at CoGs. CoGS effectively is a subcommittee of General Synod. It is the body of people that governs in between full sessions of General Synod. It is comprised of about 40 people from most of the 30 dioceses, and includes bishops, clergy and lay people. These people gather twice a year to serve the church, to develop policy and direction, to give guidance to staff, to approve budgets, to vision about the future. It is no inconsequential body.

The rationale for CoGS discussing residential schools in camera was that members would be freer to express themselves away from media scrutiny. After the closed session, a report was presented in open session on what had transpired. Documents before CoGS in camera were made public again. “Daily Highlights” a sort of informal Hansard of CoGS’ deliberations reported at length on the in camera session. There was, by all accounts, nothing concealed from the in camera session; there was nothing sinister in the Journal being excluded; there was nothing of substance done that is not described in this edition of the newspaper.

And yet, it was wrong for CoGS to do things this way. The church that CoGS serves, no less than the church served by this newspaper is you. You, the parishioners. You, the person in the pew. You, the person who receives the collection plate every Sunday as well as envelopes from the Anglican Appeal and the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and the Anglican Journal. You who have been asked time and again to keep the faith in this beleaguered church. You who were asked recently to contact your Member of Parliament to press for solutions to the residential schools crisis. You whose prayers, patience and understanding are the mainstay of the church in troubled times.

What is at issue is a clear principle. What CoGS did was to exclude you from an information session on an issue that poses a real and substantial threat to your church.

Two of the principles which we, as Anglicans, hold most dear and of which we are entitled to be proud are these: We are surely among the most fundamentally democratic institutions in Canadian society, governed from the ground up. And secondly, we strive, in all our constituent parts to be a transparent organization. We do not hide. We are proud of the work we do in God’s name, and when we make mistakes, we take out lumps. We are democratic and we are transparent.

What CoGS did flies in the face of both these principles. Knowing what happened and what was said during the closed session is less important than the fact that for a few hours the council sought protection from your scrutiny. It is too easy, in the face of adversity, to take the safe course, which is to hide our information and our feelings. It is when the urge to do so is strongest that we must resist most forcefully and be the most open in what we do and why. That is the time when all members of the church, CoGS members included, must draw strength and solace and inspiration from each other. This cannot be done in secret.


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