Secrecy at CoGS seems a recurrent theme

Published January 1, 2002

ONE OF THE strengths of the way in which the Anglican church is governed lies in a process for elections to boards and committees that allows, every three years, for a dramatic infusion of new blood, while never completely abandoning the wisdom and vision of those with the experience of service. The Council of General Synod, the church’s chief governing body in between sessions of General Synod, met this fall, as reported elsewhere in this edition.

This is a new CoGS, elected last summer at General Synod in Waterloo, Ont., and there is an array of new faces. As the Journal noted at the time, only nine of the 37 CoGS members elected at General Synod served during the preceding triennium. A turn-over like that has both strengths and weaknesses, being a bit of a gamble that an appropriate balance between freshness and experience will emerge to serve the church well. Usually, in church governing bodies, it does, both at CoGS and in the membership of the committees that report to council. And this seemed very much the case at CoGS’s inaugural meeting in Orillia, Ont. in November. New members, who on the first day of business, stumbled a bit trying to understand the admittedly esoteric system used to number agenda items were sounding like old hands three days later. This will be a good council.

That said, it should be noted that there are, these days, themes in the life of the church that transcend the three-year periods in between elections to church bodies. Some of these – fiscal prudence, a commitment to healing and reconciliation with native people, a commitment to overseas partnerships, a spirit of ecumenism illustrated by the presence at meetings of partners from other denominations – are very good things.

One recurring theme, sadly, is not a very good thing.

The most regrettable trend that seems to linger from triennium to triennium is the practice whereby a church that prides itself on democratic, grassroots governance, insists on conducting some of its most important business behind closed doors, in effect hidden from public perusal and thus, perhaps, immune to accountability.

In November, it took less than two hours of CoGS’s first plenary session before representatives of the Anglican Journal were asked to leave so that members could hear an update on negotiations with the federal government over the residential schools crisis. This happened last trimester at CoGS and this newspaper objected. It happens quite regularly at meetings of the House of Bishops, and this newspaper has objected. It happened again at the fall meeting of CoGS, and so, we will object yet again.

We made this point last year, and it bears repeating:

When representatives of the Anglican Journal are asked to leave a public meeting so that a committee or a council can deliberate in camera, however briefly, or so that it can receive information in secrecy, it is the members of the church who are ejected. The parishioners, the people in the pew whose financial and moral support is sought at other times, are thus excluded. The practice of going behind closed doors on personnel matters is commonplace and acceptable; secret reports and secret debates on something like residential schools litigation, a topic that affects every living, worshipping and contributing Anglican in the land, is simply undemocratic and bad policy. It is the antithesis of the transparency the church strives for. CoGS’s in camera sessions may have dealt with matters of solicitor-client privilege from which the Journal should rightly be excluded. It is equally conceivable that they did not. We don’t know, and hence, neither will you read about it in our news pages.

This time, CoGS actually briefly entertained a proposal that information presented publicly at a fall meeting of the House of Bishops be heard secretly – until it was pointed out that the process would not make much sense. One cannot have retroactive confidentiality. In fact, none of the in camera proceedings of which the church’s governing bodies seem so fond, make much sense. Neither are they, as an instrument of confidentiality, very effective. The maintenance of secrecy when 40 or so fallible and very social human beings are concerned, is simply too much to expect.

As regrettable as the routine practice of corporate secrecy is, it is usually equally distressing to see how quiescently the member of CoGS – good, decent people all – go along with it. This fall, CoGS’s first motion to go in camera passed without a whimper or any indication at all that members grasped what is at stake when this happens. This is usually the case. A senior member, in this case Dean Peter Elliott of New Westminster, makes the motion, and the newcomers assume that it must be pro forma and right. With this trimester’s slate of members, however, there seems to be a hope that secret meetings may not be a routine occurrence. As the meeting progressed, and CoGS found other occasions to move in camera, voices began to be raised, questions to be asked, comments to be made, and ever more hands raised when the nay votes were called for. This gives us hope.

The Anglican Journal is editorially independent precisely because the church needs and wants a voice that can stand back and, sometimes, be critical. The church, which prides itself on transparency, should once and for all abandon secrecy and closed meetings at all levels and rely instead on the fully tenable premise that none of its constituent parts, this newspaper included, would willingly do it harm. For as long as it fails to do this, we shall continue to object.


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