Faced with a 50 per cent cut in funding from the World Council of Churches, the Geneva-based ENInews has suspended its five-days-a-week news service.
The development follows a public announcement (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13806) from Ecumenical News International, as it also known, on 19 December 2010.
The award-winning news agency drew its main support from the WCC, with other sponsoring groups being the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.
ENI has operated independently, rather than as an editorial arm for the churches, and has specialised in gathering material from a network of 'stringers' across the world, as well as supporting less experienced journalists in developing countries.
In a global environment where recycled and PR driven news has grown in scale and influence, ENI has been valued by users and reporters for its original material and editorial investment.
ENInews' 50 correspondents were told on 15 December by editor-in-chief Peter Kenny that he and managing editor Stephen Brown in Geneva will not retain their jobs.
The president of ENInews, Anders Gadegaard, dean of the Copenhagen (Lutheran) Cathedral, registered his concern at the developments by submitting his resignation on 8 December 2010.
He declared: "I do not wish to take responsibility for a restructuring process without ensuring that the experiences and achievements of the past are brought forward into the new structures."
"Transformation and renewal should always build on the achievements of the past. To begin once again from zero is a waste of investments, resources and great human qualifications," said Gadegaard.
So far only sketchy details of the promised restructuring have been offered, "until a new management and editorial staff is assembled, and the resumption of the service is announced" says a statement on the ENI website (www.eni.ch). "We regret this inconvenience to our readers."
Michel Kocher, vice-president of Ecumenical News International, in another statement on behalf of the ENI executive committee, says "a minimum level of service will be offered from January 2011. By the end of February, a new staff structure will be in place."
Kocher adds: "In order to continue with French service, ENInews has signed an agreement with the French-language news service of the Reformed churches in the French-language region of Switzerland. The agency, Protestinfo (www.protestinfo.ch) will provide translations of ENInews stories.
"The partner organisations of ENInews are convinced of the importance of maintaining ENInews and are doing all in their power to ensure the service continues."
ENI was launched in 1994. The intention of the World Council of Churches to drastically cut back its 2011 funds - initially to zero, but then by 50 per cent after discussion and lobbying - was made in May 2010, two days before ENInews was honoured by the Associated Church Press in Washington DC, USA.
At the prestigious ACP event ENI was recognised (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12104) as the best news agency covering religion, as well as winning several other awards.
This week the respected Christian Century magazine in the USA described Ecumenical News International as "widely respected for its editorial independence and integrity."
The World Council of Churches, which has been under significant financial pressure itself for some years, not least due to the demise of state churches in Europe which have been among its largest funders, has been embarrassed by the abrupt demise of the existing ENI.
The announcement of the job losses was made with new WCC General Secretary the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit on holiday in his native Norway.
The Acting Head of Communications at the WCC, the Rev Theodore Gill, told Ekklesia on 21 December that, following a telephone conversation with Dr Tveit, he could confirm that "the funding decision in regard to ENI's 2011 budget has been based solely on financial constraints and not on any other consideration."
He added: "The WCC maintains that the preservation of an independent news agency is essential for the well-being of the ecumenical movement. For this reason, it looks forward to the services that will be provided by a restructured ENI."
Gill said that "it should be clear that the WCC has left the restructuring of ENI to that agency's own executive committee. The WCC values ENI's autonomy in decision-making."
However, others involved in the process have suggested that the question of how decisions have been arrived at is "confused, fraught and ambiguous", as reflected in former ENI president Anders Gadegaard's resignation.
The sudden suspension of Ecumenical News International came only weeks after a 'round-table' in October, which brought funders, users and consultants together, and which it was hoped would initiate moves towards sustainability.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, who was a participant at the round-table in Geneva, said this week: "The loss of two immensely experienced staff members, the sudden drastic cut in funding and the failure to realise a more consensual and effective transition process towards a viable future for ENInews is extremely disappointing.
"It also occurs at a time when the need for independent, quality reporting of religion has never been greater. We very much hope that ENI can be redeveloped and relaunched. We will do what we can to further that end, and in the meantime we wish to express our particular gratitude to Stephen Brown and Peter Kenny for their invaluable work," said Barrow.
Ekklesia has regularly used ENI material as part of its news briefing service, and has sought to promote the work of the agency through its own networks and syndication.