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The spirit of independence

Though an arm’s length apart, The Observer and the United Church are probably closer than ever before

By David Wilson

The lobby of an airport-strip hotel in Mississauga, Ont., might seem like an unusual place to kick off a new chapter in the relationship between this magazine and The United Church of Canada. But that is where the chapter began this summer.

The venue was chosen for convenience rather than symbolism — it so happened that the four people whose signatures would make the relationship official were gathered there for other church business. But the significance of the impromptu ceremony was clear to everyone involved.

The group consisted of Moderator Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson, United Church general secretary Nora Sanders, Observer Publications chair Martha Martin and me. The document we signed is a covenant that enshrines the editorial and operational independence of The Observer while ensuring that the magazine continues to serve the members of The United Church of Canada.

Even long-standing readers are often surprised to discover that The Observer is not an official organ of the United Church. The magazine has always enjoyed a high degree of editorial independence, based on the belief that it belongs to its readers, not the church hierarchy. In the mid-1980s, new requirements for receiving government postal subsidies made it necessary for The Observer to complement editorial independence with greater operational independence. This led to the creation in 1987 of Observer Publications Inc., a registered non-profit corporation whose affairs are governed by an 11-member board of directors.

Support from the federal government has been a crucial part of The Observer’s financial mix ever since. But recent rule changes mean publications like this one must demonstrate their independence more clearly than ever.

Hence this covenant. It’s a legal document that covers just about every aspect of the relationship between the magazine and the United Church. At its core is a governance arrangement that gives significantly more autonomy to the Observer board of directors and the corporation to which it is accountable, while ensuring that the magazine keeps its United Church flavour and that the church continues to have a meaningful voice in the board’s decision-making.

It took almost three years to work out all the details. Some of the issues were as basic as the name of the magazine (it remains The United Church Observer). Others were broader, such as drawing boundaries for fundraising, agreeing on a process for resolving disagreements, and articulating ethical standards. Both The Observer’s board of directors and the sub-Executive of the General Council approved the covenant at separate meetings in June.

While the covenant stretches the arm’s-length association that already existed between The Observer and the United Church, the working relationship between the magazine and the church is probably closer now than it has been for a long time. My board colleague Jim Lawson of Toronto quarterbacked The Observer’s part in the process from the early days to the final handshakes. Both of us were impressed by the wisdom, diligence and goodwill the United Church’s senior leadership brought to the table. A spirit of co-operation informed our discussions from start to finish. The new document enshrines that spirit, and I am confident it will continue to shape the relationship down the road.

*Mea culpa: In my last column, I mistakenly referred to Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson as the United Church’s 40th moderator. He’s the 41st. My apologies.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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