Documents that traditionally have been made available to Anglican Journal staff were withheld from them at the March 10-13 meeting of Council of General Synod (CoGS), the church’s governing body between General Synods.
The documents, made available online to CoGS members in advance of their meetings, include reports from various officers and committees of General Synod and updates on developments affecting the church, as well as background information, to help members prepare for discussions.
Archdeacon Michael Thompson, the church’s general secretary, decided not to make the documents available, saying, “The docket is not public. It’s a docket to help CoGS members prepare for the meeting.” Thompson said that Meghan Kilty, General Synod director of communication, had brought it to his attention that, “We have not developed a policy about how a not-public document becomes accessible to the press.”
In the absence of policy, he said in an interview, “The default is, the documents are not public.”
Kilty was not available for comment.
Thompson said that CoGS was not consulted about the decision, but that he had sought the opinion of Canon (lay) David Jones, General Synod chancellor, who advised him that, “In the absence of policy, we should default to a cautious decision.”
The fact that the Journal had access to these documents in the past “was probably a mistake in the absence of a policy,” Thompson said.
Anglican Journal editor Marites N. Sison said the decision would hinder the Journal’s ability to report on developments at CoGS and other areas of the church.
“Access to these documents is important if we are to provide accurate, complete, balanced and timely reporting,” she said.
“Part of the Journal’s role is to help Canadian Anglicans get a better sense of their church’s policies and decisions, and when necessary, question them,” Sison said. “The church has always described itself as open and transparent, but this move contradicts this notion.”
In 2007, she noted, the church endorsed a document, “Vision and Principles of Communication,” drafted by its communications and information resources committee and commended by CoGS for use across the church.
The document, she said, identified five principles of communication “that illustrate the character of God and of God’s people”—being transparent, timely and accurate, participatory, mission-driven and respectful of others.
Among other things, she said, the document states, “Accurate information that is received when it is needed will enable people in the church to participate more fully in its life, its ministry and its decision-making.”
Withholding access to CoGS documents does not contravene these principles, said Thompson. “I think this decision is all about protecting the integrity of the relationship between General Synod and the Anglican Journal in light of the Journal’s editorial independence, and not making up policy on the fly that might seem to offer privileges that would be inappropriate for an editorially independent publication. That’s what this is all driven by.”
Thompson added that the decision “is not about hiding something. This is not about being opaque.” He said documents that had been placed in front of Council members and put up on screen would be released to media.
The “existing practice has been inconsistent because there’s been some inattention to questions that are raised about sharing privileged documents with one independent media outlet that we would not be anxious necessarily to share with other media,” he added.
A question that needs to be settled, said Thompson, is “to what extent can we treat the Journal differently from other media without compromising the integrity of the complex relationship that General Synod and the Anglican Journal have?”
According to the Anglican Journal’s terms of reference, the Journal is the national newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada, but it is “not the official voice of the church.” It also has “an independent editorial policy.”
Thompson said that while a policy governing CoGS documents needs to be made, “it’s not top of my list…at this point.” But, he added, “this is an important conversation” that may involve officers of General Synod, including the chancellor, the deputy chancellor, the prolocutor and the deputy prolocutor. “I don’t know whose sign-off is required for a policy like that.”
He said such a “conversation” that could either affirm the existing practice or introduce a new one will be public. “I would think that would take place somewhere in the public life of the church, and eventually the Council of General Synod.”
Asked whether documents relating to the General Synod meeting this July would be similarly withheld from the Journal, Thompson said he has confirmed with the chancellor that, “The convening circular of the General Synod is a public document.”
Thompson said that the convening circular is considered a public document because it “has that kind of sense of finish to it—it sums up the ministries over the course of three years, it records memorials from dioceses, it records the resolutions that are known as the synod begins…none of those things is, in any sense, a privileged document. I think it belongs to the church.”
CoGS documents, on the other hand, are “in support of their deliberations, and what belongs to the church is the account of their deliberations. They need to give an account of what they talked about and what they concluded, and some sense of how they came to that conclusion.”
Sison said she hoped last week’s decision would not set a precedent.
“As Hugh McCullum, a former Journal editor, once underscored, ‘An open, transparent church is a strong church,’ ” she said.