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Front page challenge

The United Church found itself in the media crosshairs this past fall, wondering how — or whether — to respond to a spate of negative news stories

By David Hayes

A progressive church that enthusiastically tackles issues of social justice knows it will attract media coverage, both good and bad. Still, from the top ranks to the grassroots, no one in The United Church of Canada expected the velocity of two controversies that erupted in the national media last September after the 40th General Council in Kelowna, B.C.

After removing some strongly worded background material attached to three proposals on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the church chose not to approve a national boycott but told its member bodies that they “are free to study, discern and pray, and to undertake their own initiatives, which may include economic boycotts as a means to ending the occupation.” Simmering in the background was a decision to provide minor funding for a conference in March 2008 at which an activist organization called Independent Jewish Voices was created. Both landed the church on the front pages and editorial sections of major newspapers and drew renewed attention to a question the church has faced throughout its history: how should it respond to bad press, or should it respond at all?

For news reporters covering the General Council, a potential boycott of Israel — a hot button issue that would be sure to attract readers’ attention — stood out. The Canadian Press, the national wire service, and the National Post, a conservative paper that takes religion almost as seriously as it does its support for the state of Israel, were the first to run reports. As other media outlets picked up the stories, controversy began to build.

As this happened, intense discussions took place within the upper ranks of the United Church. “We’re always talking about strategy, what may be needed in a particular situation,” says Mary-Frances Denis, a former CBC producer who is the church’s veteran media and public relations co-ordinator. In this case, Rev. Bruce Gregersen, the senior General Council official in charge of programs, took the lead, co-ordinating media interviews, drafting opinion page articles for newspapers and crafting internal communications to the church membership.

“We monitor the letters and e-mails coming in, as well as the media,” says Denis. “We may get a sense that ministers confronting questions posed by their congregations need more information. And if we see an area of confusion that keeps getting raised, we know the issue needs clarification.”

Sometimes, as in the Israel boycott issue, the best approach is responding in the media, either by being available for interviews or by offering the newspapers an op-ed page article, often written by the moderator. In some cases, media outlets approach the church first. After a critical essay on the boycott motions written by Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, appeared in the Post, the paper contacted the church and offered to run an op-ed page response. As a result, an article written by then moderator Very Rev. David Giuliano provided much-needed perspective.

“The four proposals in question are among 105 proposals relating to many different issues that are coming to the Council from regional Conferences of the church,” wrote Giuliano. “They are what they are — proposals that will be debated, likely amended and either approved or defeated. . . . What may be surprising to some readers is that the United Church is willing to wrestle with such contentious issues in public. But that is the democratic nature of our church.”

This kind of frankness is unusual. Charles Lewis, the Post’s religion reporter, says many large churches make themselves unavailable for comment and issue bland press releases, hoping controversies will blow over. “With the United Church, I find they reply right away, they’re not defensive, they don’t run for cover. They don’t say, ‘Oh no, it’s not true,’ or ‘We didn’t mean that.’ They say, ‘Yes, it’s true, and we’ll try to explain to you why we’re doing it.’ That’s both admirable and disarming.”

One former moderator who is no stranger to controversy is Very Rev. Bill Phipps. When his three-year tenure began in 1997, he told the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board that he didn’t think the resurrection of Jesus was a scientific fact, that he was an agnostic on the question of the afterlife, and “I don’t believe Jesus was God.” The Citizen’s story generated enormous coverage — and controversy.

“I remember people saying to me, ‘You must have been misquoted,’ and ‘Your words must have been taken out of context,’” recalls Phipps. “I said, ‘No, actually I thought the reporter did a pretty good job of distilling all the different things that interview covered.’ When the National Post went nuts over the Israel boycott, it wasn’t a bad thing so long as we aren’t defensive but rather enter into a dialogue around the issue. I think groups, like churches, that care about ethical issues need to do as much as possible to engender public debate.”

Mary-Frances Denis, who handled media relations after Phipps’s interview in the Citizen, remembers getting a call from a corporate communications consultant who offered to help her shut down the controversy. “My response was, ‘That’s not the strategy we’re adopting,’” she says. “A conversation about Jesus and God in the mainstream media was something we were pleased with.”

In mid-September, a few weeks after General Council ended but while the Israel boycott was still in the news, a column by the National Post’s Jonathan Kay began, “The United Church of Canada narrowly avoided disgrace last month when its members rejected a bigoted resolution aimed at boycotting Israel. But a scandalous new revelation suggests the controversy is far from over.” Kay went on to report that the church had provided a $900 contribution to a group “that led to the creation of Independent Jewish Voices, an extremist group whose leaders support a total economic boycott of Israel.” Warming to his topic, Kay continued, “In this regard, the activists in the United Church are very much of a piece with their pals in the anti-Zionist branch of the gay-rights movement.”

While reaction to the Israel proposals at General Council wasn’t a total surprise, general secretary Nora Sanders admits that the financial support for the Independent Jewish Voices conference “wasn’t even on our radar.” The conference had sounded like a promising initiative by liberals interested in Israel and Palestine, she explains, and it was one of a great many requests the church receives from all kinds of organizations and individuals. In this case, the donation was so small that rigorous background checks on all the members of the group hadn’t been done. “It’s made us look at how we’ve been giving out grants and the greater level of scrutiny we need to apply,” she says, a point that was disseminated to the church via its website.

Another way to approach controversy is by speaking directly to the flock. Anne Perry, the newly hired program co-ordinator serving the general secretary and the moderator, is a former Toronto Star reporter and editorial board member. Along with writing reports and other duties, her role involves handling internal communications. “People often call or write saying things like, ‘I’d really like to see those proposals I’m reading about in the National Post.’ So my role in this particular instance was responding to members of the church because they had concerns or wanted more information.”

The new moderator, Mardi Tindal, is unruffled by media coverage. “Columnists are paid to be provocative,” she says, when asked about Jonathan Kay’s column. “We must understand that and not be too thin-skinned. That goes for all media coverage. Many lament that churches aren’t taken as seriously today as they once were. Well, if someone takes issue with one of our positions in the media and it results in more coverage and a public debate, it says to me that we’re both relevant and significant in Canadian society.”

David Hayes is a Toronto freelance writer, author and journalism instructor.
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