Church’s reputation for transparency takes a hit

Published November 1, 2005

In the end, it will probably amount to a small black mark on the church’s reputation for transparency.

Management at General Synod, the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office in Toronto, last summer commissioned a report on the state of the Anglican Book Centre, the church’s retail and publishing arm. Concerned by a couple of years of deep financial losses, management hoped the report would recommend a way forward for ABC’s operations.

The resulting report – kept private by management team but later obtained by the Anglican Journal – describes a “first-class operation … the measuring stick for other players” in the denominational or Christian bookstore field. But it also describes a troubled business. The report identifies management problems, accounting fees from the national church that are too high and a flawed dual reporting structure (ABC managers report to two different directors). It called for the creation of a director of ABC who is at the same level as management team, someone who is involved in ABC’s day-to-day operations. It also recommended scaling back the publishing arm to fewer titles each year.

More of the recommendations of the report are detailed in the news story on p. 2.

The church elected not to release the report. They say the document was a report to management team, commissioned by them, for them. Management says the report was only one “piece of the puzzle” that helped them reach their decision to lay off staff and make dramatic changes to the day-to-day operations of the business. Finally, they said that the consultant’s contract included a privacy clause that prevents them from releasing it, and the report would likely have been written in a different way if it had been intended for the public.

Why should you care? Well, for one, if you regularly drop an envelope in the basket each Sunday, you helped pay for that report. How much? Management will not say, calling it only “a nominal sum.” Also, the report was part of the deliberations that led to the bookstore’s hours being slashed and the layoffs in September of six staff who worked in the store and in its shipping department.

ABC staff – both in the store and its shipping department – argue that they are on the front line with Anglicans every day; they are the face of the church’s national office and the public face of the Anglican church to the non-Anglican world. They deal with the seekers, with the altar guilds, with the clergy and choir directors needing prayer books and worship materials, with the proud parents of postulants who want to buy a stole for their daughter’s ordination, with the Sunday school teachers and new parents wanting decent religious books and educational materials.

ABC has had a bullseye on its back for two years now. Once a cash cow for the church – in years past, it used to cut an annual cheque to General Synod from its profits – it is the victim of changes in the publishing world brought on by mega-stores and online businesses like Amazon and Indigo/Chapters. Additionally, sales have dropped for staples like Common Praise, the church’s 1998 hymn book, because most parishes which would buy it have already done so; the store also took a hit from a disastrous, oft-delayed building move in 2004, which was preceded by a liquidation sale.

The bookstore’s parent organization, the Anglican Church of Canada, is in trouble – two and a half years of paying into the Residential Schools Settlement Fund has left dioceses tapped. The national office has been slowly hemorrhaging funds because its main source of income – proportional giving and contributions from dioceses – has been slowly dwindling. Once dioceses’ commitments to the settlement fund are paid in full, things may well improve.

As the church muddles through this crisis, though, it will be asking itself how things might be done differently. Those questions often lead to the desire to bring in consultants – outsiders who can cast an objective eye over the day-to-day operations that might escape those in the midst of it all. They will most assuredly get some good advice, and some, well, not-so-helpful counsel. That is what consultants can do for an organization. An organization without a vision might, however, keep casting about for answers, throwing good money after bad until one tells them what they suspected all along. The temptation might arise to keep this information secret, but that would be a mistake.

The church did not have to follow the ABC report’s recommendations to a T. It could have, and probably did, take to heart some of his suggestions as well as ideas from ABC staff. Then again, the church could have ignored it altogether; prior to General Synod 2004, the church asked a consultant to poll Canadian Anglicans about whether the church should vote on the matter of same-sex blessings at the 2004 meeting or wait until 2007. The consultants issued a report indicating that many Anglicans wanted more time to discuss the issue and that a decision should be postponed until General Synod 2007. The national faith, worship and ministry committee, however, disagreed and elected to put it to the members of General Synod 2004. That report, however, was made public.

It is one thing to spend money on a report, then reject its recommendations after careful consideration and debate. It is quite another to use the church’s money to hire a consultant whose report will not be shared with the staff who were consulted or the church that paid for it.

At a long-ago meeting of primates in 1989, the primate of Central Africa, told then-Canadian primate Archbishop Michael Peers, “What we respect most in the Canadian church is your transparency; you are the most transparent province of the Communion.”

Transparency in the Canadian church just took a hit. /p>


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