Written by J. Bennett Guess
At the Episcopal Church's 2003 General Convention, when the Rev. Gene Robinson was formally elected to become the denomination's first openly gay bishop, the secular media went wild. It's a good thing, then, that prior to the onslaught of reporters, the Episcopal Church had a policy in place about how it would receive and work with the press. Many now say the Episcopal Church's professional handling of the situation provided for fair, accurate, even positive coverage for the church—certainly more so than had they tried to practice "containment."
Crisis offers its own headaches, but it's certainly no time to be discerning one's relationship to the press. That's why it concerns me—and hopefully it concerns you—that the UCC's Executive Council and the denomination's four national Covenanted Ministries continue to operate without an open meeting policy. And, frankly, it's not in their best interest—or yours.
Open meeting policies, known legally as "sunshine laws," are required for government entities. But many mainline church bodies have adopted similar policies as a way of promoting trust and diminishing even the suspicion of underhanded, unethical or illegal conduct or mismanagement.
However, unlike the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church, and others, the UCC has resisted the adoption of a policy that spells out its relationship with the press.
In fact, in March 2001, the Executive Council tabled such a proposal Ñ primarily out of fears that reporters would be able to attend and cover every aspect of its proceedings. Quite the contrary, open meeting policies provide clear direction for both journalists and board members. In many ways, such policies actually serve to protect institutions because they carefully spell out when the press can and can't be present. They rightly allow for closed sessions when a body is discussing sensitive subjects, such as personnel, litigation or property negotiations, but they also convey a spirit of openness—something that most would expect from the church, especially the UCC.
Ironically, earlier this year, the board of directors of the UCC's Office of General Ministries passed a general policy on visitors that says its meetings are "open" to everyone. But while friendly and admirable, I doubt that, in actuality, it is true or even wise. If Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, or even Ben Guess—and their attorneys—showed up unexpectedly at the next board meeting, one can only imagine the shoddy, hastily written, media policy it might try to adopt.
The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops used to have a closed policy, but in recent years it has learned a painful lesson about the danger of secrecy—no matter if such secrecy is real, alleged or only imagined. It has since adopted an open meeting policy for both religion and secular journalists. So should we.
"It would be good to have a policy when you are not arguing about it or when the question arises and you have no kind of guidance," says John Dart, news editor of The Christian Century.
Dart says that such policies create a "calming effect" for church members, because even if they can't attend meetings in person, they know a reporter is present—or at least could be.
In many ways, Dart says, the UCC's lack of an open meeting policy is a sign of its smallness. "Larger denominations have had enough strife that by necessity they have seen the need to have some sort of policy ahead of time," he says. "Bigness and fame almost force people to have policies to handle things."
I doubt many would point proudly to either our smallness or our obscurity as sufficient reasons to neglect a policy of openness. In fact, I'm betting that many UCC members will be surprised, if not troubled, to learn that no such policy currently exists.