Ottawa issues warning to Canadian Mennonite magazine

When my electronic copy of the latest issue of the award-winning church magazine Canadian Mennonite arrived in my inbox last week, I was shocked while reading editor-publisher Dick Benner’s editorial. In it, he disclosed the magazine has received a warning letter from Canada Revenue Agency about its “political activities.” Additional details were published in a news story by board vice-chair Carl DeGurse in the same issue. The story disturbed me on two levels: one, sudden engagement of a government department with a magazine that has had a long history of provoking discussion about the interplay between church and state; second, the notion that Ottawa is, apparently, making subjective judgments about the political activities of Canadian charities, applying litmus tests by which their charitable status might be preserved or revoked.

Canadian Mennonite is the published under a partnership agreement between six different Mennonite bodies under the umbrella of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, which has charitable status so that individual church members (or others) may make personal donations. The magazine’s guiding principles, ownership and governance structures, bylaws and annual reports are all abundantly transparent and are available here. (Full disclosure: I served on the board of CMPS from 2004-2010; the last two years as board chair.) Throughout its existence, it has been a member of the Canadian Church Press and has regularly been recognized for excellence in editorial content and design.

Canadian Mennonite is, in fact, the successor to a tabloid newspaper called Mennonite Reporter, whose founding editor in 1971 was historian and church journalist Frank H. Epp. Owing to the nature of Mennonite experience and theology, both periodicals have a long history of reflecting the continuing struggle, within their constituents and readers, of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.” Isolation from society, as reflected among the Amish (theological cousins to Mennonites) is one response; full engagement with it is another. There are many shades of grey in between. The point is that it is within the nature of the denomination, which sees peace and justice as primary motivators, to continuously grapple with the church-state relationship, including issues such as war, peacemaking, sanctuary for refugees, justice, humanitarian concerns, disaster relief, foreign policy and so on. Over the past century, Mennonite periodicals in Canada and the United States have reflected this. Many other denominations, such as the United Church of Canada, have had similar priorities.

I can appreciate the byzantine challenge that the CRA faces in trying to determine which applicants and holders of Canadian charitable status are legitimate. The task of separating the wheat from the chaff here must be complex and occasionally frustrating. And, indeed, it’s important for all of us, as citizens, that Canadian charities not be fronts from political organizations, fly-by-night operators, hate groups, foreign operatives and other schemes. To that extent, it’s appropriate for CRA to examine the nature and general activities of each Canadian charity on a regular basis.

But to issue a warning to an established church magazine over content that urges readers to carefully consider the voting records of MPs before casting their ballots, or opinion pieces that wonder about the Christian response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, smacks of administrative overreaching and interference, not to mention the chilling effect it has on religious press freedoms.

Application of the same type of monitoring to other Canadian charities would mean that CRA would begin vetting the homilies and sermons delivered in churches, synagogues and mosques (Canadian charities, all) or keeping a closer watch over the activities of AIDS societies, United Way campaigns, or community foundations for some sense as to their political leanings.

I’m glad Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press picked up this story yesterday, as have a number of other bloggers, writers, newscasts and websites over the past few days. Every Canadian charity should be concerned, even if Canadian Mennonite is the only member of the Canadian Church Press to have received such a letter of warning.

Update: Marcy Markusa of CBC’s Information Radio in Manitoba interviewed Benner regarding this issue on Nov. 9; that chat can be heard here.

Update 2: Here’s Dick Benner’s second editorial on the subject; this one in the Nov. 26 issue of Canadian Mennonite.

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