A LONG-AWAITED provincial court decision has disappointed traditional Anglicans.
On November 25, Justice Stephen Kelleher of the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster will retain the property of four parishes which have left the diocese to join the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC). While the decision has brought some clarity, however, it has not resolved all issues in the dispute.
A strong majority in the four parishes voted to leave the diocese in 2008. As stated in an ANiC news release, they had been in “serious theological dispute” with the diocese since 2002, when it voted to offer blessings to same-sex unions.
The parishes have argued that the real issue is their commitment to remain true to the teachings of the Bible. They are among many traditional parishes uncomfortable with liberal theological and social trends in the Anglican church.
In his 98-page decision, Kelleher said he based it on “neutral principles of law” – the idea that courts should not get involved in church doctrinal disputes, but decide church property issues based on a church’s own “statutes and rules.”
In this case, while the parishes were separately incorporated and held title to the properties, the parishes were incorporated under the same Act which incorporated the diocese; therefore, Kelleher ruled that “A parish does not have authority to unilaterally leave the diocese” and “property effectively remains within the diocese.”
The four parishes argued the case should instead have been decided on trust law – the idea that the properties were held in trust for “historic, orthodox Anglican doctrine and practice” as defined in the ‘Solemn Declaration’ issued by the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) when it was founded.
Kelleher based his conclusion on several considerations:
• while the ACC issued the Solemn Declaration, the church was not founded on it;
• it is impossible to determine historic orthodox Anglican doctrine, since Anglicans have changed doctrines on the remarriage of divorced persons and the ordination of women;
• the courts should defer to the “highest ecclesial authority” to decide orthodox doctrine – in this case, the ACC.
“It is a great concern to hear that a majority can redefine and change the doctrine of the church and that those who wish to remain faithful to the church’s teaching must change their beliefs or sacrifice their buildings,” said Cheryl Chang, legal advisor to the ANiC. She suggested the decision is based on a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine.
Don Hutchinson, general legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, stated: “I commend those who have taken the position of placing their faith and practice ahead of bricks and mortar.” However, he found it appropriate that Kelleher “respected the religious freedom of the Anglican communion” by allowing internal Anglican processes to resolve internal Anglican disputes. George Cadman, chancellor of the Diocese of New Westminster, praised the court decision, saying it has “provided clarity going forward.”
However, not all issues have been clarified. At press time the parishes had not declared whether or not they might appeal the ruling to a higher court. An appeal could delay a final decision for years.
The decision was not entirely favourable to the Diocese of New Westminster. Kelleher concluded that Ingham had no right to replace the trustees of the parishes. It was Ingham’s attempt to do this that prompted the four parishes to initiate the court case.
The court decision means the diocese owns the buildings; but they are still being administered by the parish trustees.
Kelleher decided to “leave it to the parties to arrive at a workable resolution.”
Hutchinson suggested the court was essentially challenging both parties to cooperate and find a mutually acceptable solution. He noted the “clear scriptural injunction about reconciling with your brother,” and said Christian mediation resources could resolve the issues.
However, leaders of the Diocese of New Westminster suggested that the issue has already been decided. Ingham contended “the entire conflict has been unnecessary,” blaming it on a few “extreme conservative leaders.”
He has written to the parishes, inviting them to remain in the buildings and work with him to appoint new conservative clergy acceptable to both him and the parishes.
That is not likely to happen, said Chang. The people who voted by strong margins to leave the diocese “knew we could lose our property . . . At the end of the day, if forced to choose, we will choose our faith over our buildings.”
At stake is not just the church buildings, but also the parish bank accounts and other property – down to the hymn books in the pews. However, since the dispute began – and after an attempt by the diocese to take control of the bank accounts – some of the parishes have been operating out of separate bank accounts, held in the name of the ANiC.
The least affected of the four parishes is Church of the Good Shepherd in Vancouver; the congregation recently purchased a larger building. St. Matthew’s Church in Abbotsford has been offered space in the building of a another church.
The situation may be more difficult for St. John’s Shaughnessy. The largest Anglican Church in Canada, it has a building worth $10 million, and attracts over 1,600 people.
Chang suggested it will be virtually impossible to find another building in the same neighbourhood which could accommodate that many people. Accordingly, she maintained: “This is an attack on our ability to preach the gospel.”
This court case will set a precedent for pending cases involving other parishes that have left the ACC.
There are 33 parishes in the ANiC; beyond that, Chang said there are other conservative parishes in the ACC which may want to leave in future. ACC leaders, she asserted, are “forcing people to stay in the church out of fear” they will lose their buildings.
“Nobody needs to stay in a denominational structure because they can’t afford to leave,” Hutchinson suggested. He added: “I don’t know what the Anglican Church of Canada plans to do with empty buildings.”
A recent ACC study shows very significant declines in attendance and finances. Aside from the conservative parishes which are leaving, the denomination is already facing a surplus of buildings.
By Jim Coggins, Jan 31, 2010