PUBLIC STATEMENTS & THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA
"Who has been given the authority to speak publicly on behalf of the United Church, and in doing so, represent their comments as those of The United Church of Canada?"
This is a perennial question for which there is no straightforward answer. Like many issues the United Church debates, there are a variety of opinions.
This doucment summarizes the operating principles with regard to public statements by The United Church of Canada, as defined by the General Council Division of Communication.
WHO SPEAKS FOR THE CHURCH?
The Moderator and the General Secretary are the chief spokespeople for the institution of the United Church as a national body because of their stature, presence and position within the denomination.
They may delegate the authority to speak to individuals with expertise in specific areas. This is done through the various Divisions and committees of The United Church of Canada. When asked to speak on behalf of the Church, these designated spokespeople do so within the parameters of United Church policy, as approved by either the General Council or its Executive.
ARE PUBLIC STATEMENTS BASED ON POLICY?
All public statements of The United Church of Canada are statements of the General Council.
Whether it is the Moderator, the General Secretary or a representative of one of the General Council Divisions--- staff, volunteer or committee---who is speaking, they all speak based on policies approved by the General Council. They are therefore speaking on behalf of that legislative body.
The only exception to this is when a public statement is made about an on-going study or about a recommendation that is being brought forward. These statements should be clearly identified as preliminary proposals---not policies.
Is a person who is speaking on behalf of The United Church free to interpret General Council policy?
Absolutely. In fact when speaking on behalf of the United Church it's often necessary to both articulate policy and explain how that policy is applied within a current situation. This usually means being able to respond to questions or issue statements that require the interpretation of policy based on the general principles adopted by General Council.
BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU ARE ASKED TO COMMENT ABOUT AN ISSUE WHERE THERE IS NO GENERAL COUNCIL POLICY?
Sometimes it's best not to respond when there is no policy on which to base your comments. However, when there is a policy on a related issue, it may be possible to frame your comments within that context.
Knowing when or when not to comment in these circumstances is a difficult judgment. That is why it is important when asked to speak on behalf of the church, to evaluate the benefit of commenting on a particular issue against the risk of inadvertently misrepresenting the United Church.
WHEN THE MODERATOR SPEAKS, DOES HE OR SHE SPEAK AS AN INDIVIDUAL?
When the Moderator speaks, he/she is speaking on behalf of the denomination as a whole because usually what he/she is saying is based on General Council policy. He/she is not speaking as an individual but as a representative of the Church. The statement therefore becomes a statement of The United Church of Canada.
When a Moderator wishes to voice opinions on topics that have not been debated by General Council, the Moderator must clearly identify these comments as his or her personal views.
CAN A STATEMENT, APPROVED BY THE ELECTED MEMBERS OF A COMMITTEE, DIVISION, CONFERENCE OR PRESBYTERY, SPEAK FOR THE UNITED CHURCH?
This question cannot be answered without first understanding the United Church's conciliar system of decision making. In a conciliar system, all the laws and policies for the body as a whole are enacted by councils or courts. The members of these courts are selected by courts at the next lower level of jurisdiction.
In a conciliar system, each court has specific and exclusive areas of responsibility. When a court of the church speaks, it must speak within the bounds of the authority granted it by the United Church's Basis of Union or its appointing body.
It is within these bounds that a statement approved by the elected members of one of the United Church's courts, speaks for the General Council, and thus the United Church as a whole, until such time as the General Council meets to discuss the issue.
ARE THE PEOPLE WHO SPEAK ON BEHALF OF THE UNITED CHURCH ALSO THE DECISION MAKERS?
Sometimes they are. Often they're not. A clear distinction must be made between the people who are expected to speak publicly about the decisions made by the United Church and the people who are members of the courts of the church who actually make the decisions.
Staff usually are not the people who make the decisions. Their role is to carry on the work of the decision-makers after decisions are made. They are the "professionals" with the expertise and skill to articulate and explain church policy, but are not the ones to create it. Staff are often the people with the highest profile but with the least amount of power when it comes to making public statements.
DOES PERSONAL OPINION HAVE A PLACE IN PUBLIC STATEMENTS?
There is no simple answer to this question.
Any member, adherent or employee of The United Church of Canada is free to make a personal comment or statement on any issue or policy of concern to the Church. However, it should be clearly stated whether what is being said is an official statement, a personal interpretation of policy, or a statement of personal belief.
Public statements should not be used as a platform for personal opinion. As individuals, General Council staff, committee representatives and officers of the various courts of the church, carry with their position a responsibility when making public statements. In effect, these individuals lose a certain measure of their freedom of expression when it comes to voicing their personal opinion on issues of concern to the church.
BUT HOW COULD THE UNITED CHURCH MAKE SUCH A STATEMENT?
Some public statements may not reflect the opinion of each and every member of the denomination. However when these statements are based on General Council policy, it is appropriate to describe them as statements of The United Church of Canada.
When making a public statement about an issue that has not been dealt with by General Council, the spokesperson should clearly identify which court or committee of the church is making this statement.
BUT I DISAGREE WITH ONE OF THE UNITED CHURCH'S PUBLIC STATEMENTS!
Individual members of the United Church are free to disagree with General Council policy and therefore should not feel that the church's public statements in any way compromise that right.
Those individuals, however, who are representatives of the General Council or who are ministers of the denomination, carry with their position a unique obligation with regard to public statements.
These individuals, while free to disagree with a public statement of The United Church of Canada, are not permitted to ridicule, denigrate or misrepresent General Council policy. Their opposition to a policy statement may be voiced either through the church's courts or in public, as long as they represent their opinion as an individual and not as a representative of the United Church as a whole.
This document was approved in principal in December, 1991 by the General Council Secretaries as a working tool for the General Council offices.