Until recently, the Anglican Church of Canada didn’t need to worry much about a communications strategy for the simple reason that the mainstream press didn’t much care what the church was doing. That all changed with the Lytton judgment of August 1999, which found the church and federal government jointly responsible for the sexual abuse of a former residential school student. Since the national church has let it be known that escalating legal bills threaten its financial viability, it has landed in the news regularly. The arrival on the media scene of the National Post, which immediately took a much greater interest in things religious than other secular newspapers, has also been a major factor. Suddenly the church, and the possible demise of its national body, is hot news. That’s truer than ever after the latest Council of General Synod, when numerous media outlets picked up on the church’s news releases suggesting bankruptcy may be imminent. The day after the council meeting in Fredericton ended, General Secretary Jim Boyles was lambasted by callers to Toronto radio station CFRB, who angrily accused the church of evading its responsibilities in trying to get the government to protect it from bankruptcy. The church has been hoping the public would pressure the federal government on its behalf to save it from financial ruin. It even commissioned a poll which concluded the public doesn’t want to see the churches bankrupted. But if the angry – and somewhat ill-informed – callers to CFRB are any indication of what might be on the minds of the wider public, the church has got a massive public-relations job ahead of it. Being new at the game of attempting to influence public opinion and spin the media, it’s perhaps to be expected the church might make the occasional misstep and that disagreements over strategy might crop up. Talking publicly about looming bankruptcy has caught the attention of the government and the general public but the fear is potential donors may be unnecessarily spooked and valued staff may start an exodus from Church House.
Some members of the council seemed convinced that if only the church could issue the right kind of communications, it could somehow get its message out to the public unaltered and unquestioned. Day 2 of council opened with a demand from a livid Bishop Leonard Whitten of Western Newfoundland that council address its communications strategy immediately. He related a phone call he had received from an archdeacon in Corner Brook that morning, who had read the National Post article of May 5, reporting that the church could be bankrupt in 2001. The church had issued a news release to that effect the day before. Bishop Whitten said the dean of the cathedral parish was in the midst of a $500,000 fundraising drive and articles suggesting the Anglican Church was going bankrupt were extremely unhelpful. “We need to manage our communications around this time,” he said, suggesting it might even require the Journal’s mandate be changed for a while. What particularly incensed some people – the church’s treasurer, Jim Cullen, in particular – was the mention in that news release of bankruptcy by 2001. That information was revealed in a closed-door session the day before. It had been part of a presentation Mr. Cullen and Mr. Boyles made to a director in the Indian Affairs Department earlier that week, as part of their ongoing negotiations to have the government cap their liability. The news that the church could be bankrupt next year shouldn’t have been released, Mr. Cullen said in an interview, for two reasons. One is that the 125 or so already anxious General Synod staff would only be made much more anxious, and two already-skittish donors might decide not to give at all. He said a donor had contacted him the week before with a $6,000 gift but the man said he wanted it returned if it couldn’t be put into programs. The Post article prompted a resolution from Michael Iveson of the Diocese of Ottawa that a moratorium be placed on any further external communications until a communications plan for the meeting was established. Council agreed to issue a communiqué at the end. Bishop Don Harvey of East Newfoundland and Labrador spoke in favour of the motion, saying information needed to be handled sensitively or comments “taken out of context” could take a number of weeks or even months to fix. Several people spoke against the motion. Donna Bomberry, the church’s indigenous ministries co-ordinator said “Maybe we need a few more irate deans. The pew is too comfortable. People out there think it’s business as usual and it isn’t ?This is life changing and we have to be open for this. We have to come to terms with being at the brink.” Rev. Helena-Rose Houldcroft of Qu’Appelle agreed, suggesting the church’s transparent approach to the crisis has been healthy. “I know how distressing it can be for people to hear alarming things. But these are alarming times. I’d rather take my chances. ? We’ve been vulnerable all along. That’s the value I want to uphold.” And Archbishop Percy O’Driscoll noted people in his Diocese of Huron are fully aware of the dangers General Synod faces. “This motion at this stage is almost like bolting the door after the horses have fled.” In the end, the motion to restrict communications passed 18 to 16. Council isn’t the only body nervous about the way communications are being handled. Lawyers for the church have reportedly been extremely unhappy that its leaders continue to speak publicly about the issue and acknowledge a level of responsibility and guilt. They weren’t happy to see a full issue of the church’s Ministry Matters magazine devoted to residential schools and were no more pleased to see May’s Journal supplement. Meanwhile, the church has hired Ottawa lobbyist Michael Butler of Strategies Group of Ottawa to help it get its point across to the government. Mr. Butler also advises the Assembly of First Nations. He was a senior civil servant until his retirement in 1985 and is an active Anglican.