Communication must be transparent, timely and accurate

Published December 1, 2007

Although it passed with little fanfare last spring, the Anglican Church of Canada endorsed a document entitled Vision and Principles of Communications. Drafted by the national church’s communications and information resources committee and commended by the Council of General Synod (CoGS) for use across the Canadian church, these guiding principles assert first and foremost that “how we communicate is as important as what we communicate.”

The principles are logical and appear to be uncontroversial: communication should be respectful of others, it should reflect God’s mission and be timely, accurate and participatory, whereby church members are “invited to respond, to converse, to reprove, to add, and to enliven both the process and the product.”

(The latter principle is the driving force behind the Anglican Journal’s letter pages and the reason why we proposed to readers the idea of a moratorium on letters about same-sex blessings. Please see p. 5 for more information on readers’ responses. The letters page of any publication belongs to the readers; it is their forum and they must buy into any major changes that affect them or a precious relationship is lost.)

But critically, the document asserts that in order to be effective and responsible, communication must be transparent, timely and accurate.

Two recent examples in the church demonstrate that the goals of effective communication are not always met: 1) the trend within the house of bishops to take segments of their meetings and their deliberations behind closed doors and 2) the fallout in the diocese of Quebec due to its lack of communication about financial issues.

The media – in particular, the Journal – have traditionally enjoyed relatively liberal access to meetings of the house of bishops. In the last year, though, the bishops have drafted their meeting agendas with sessions that are closed to outsiders. Instead, they have chosen to issue letters to the church at the conclusion of their meetings.

Speaking in favour of taking part of their meeting behind closed doors and communicating those conversations later in a letter to the church, Bishop Victoria Matthews of Edmonton asked, “Do we speak for ourselves or let the press speak for us?”

The bishops are to be commended for wanting to communicate directly with the wider church. However, in choosing to open this line of communication, they are at the same time cutting off another line – the media, through which much of the wider church habitually receives its information. While the house of bishops is not an elected body like CoGS or one of the church’s standing committees, and is therefore not accountable to the wider church in the same way, the bishops nonetheless do make decisions at their meetings that affect the Canadian church and those meetings are covered by the national church’s budget. Their moratorium on the blessing of same-sex couples – reached in 2005 and reaffirmed this year at their spring and fall meetings – has certainly had an impact on Canadian Anglicans.

If the members of the church are expected to understand and accept their leaders’ decisions and actions, it is important for them to hear about the deliberations that led up to those conclusions. If they do not comprehend the context behind the bishops’ decisions and statements, there are bound to be misunderstandings.

If allowed to observe the entire meeting, responsible media can weigh an entire debate and provide necessary context for readers. It is important for Anglicans to know, for instance, not only that the bishops reached a decision or conclusion on a matter but that they debated it honestly and passionately. And they should be able to read for themselves the positions their bishops took in a debate.

Transparency is the key.

Then, there is the complicated situation in the diocese of Quebec (please see p. 6). In December 2006, the diocese launched an investigation into “some significant accounting irregularities” that were discovered after the resignation of its treasurer. In October of this year, the diocesan archbishop, Bruce Stavert, released a statement that said questions regarding the audit of the diocese’s Church Society’s books were “fully resolved” and no charges were being considered against the former treasurer. It expressed regret to the one-time employee for the lengthy process. But because it gave no detailed accounting of the investigation, some members of the diocese were dissatisfied with the archbishop’s statement. They went public with their concerns, which were raised in a news story and a letter to the editor in the diocese’s newspaper, much to the dismay of the diocesan leadership.

Bishop-elect Dennis Drainville, who will succeed Archbishop Stavert in 2009, has since acknowledged that the diocese could have better communicated the information about the investigation. Concern about the legal implications of releasing too much information (and, perhaps breaching confidentiality agreements) likely led to the vague statement and the reluctance to answer questions. That reluctance to provide clear communication – within the constraints of their legal agreements – can clearly have disastrous effects, making a difficult situation even more complicated.

Bishop-elect Drainville has since promised a full statement in the future that will clarify the results of the investigation.


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