A B.C. court ruling that four dissident Anglican parishes have no legal right to their buildings and land is being viewed as a watershed moment in a decade-long battle within the Church over same-sex blessings.
The case is sure to have ramifications for the other 35 dissident parishes spread across Canada that have chosen to leave the national church over doctrinal issues, raising questions about where they will worship if other courts follow suit and rule in favour of the Anglican Church of Canada on the property issue.
“We are absolutely concerned that this will create a precedent,” said Cheryl Chang, chancellor of the Anglican Network in Canada, which represents the breakaway churches. It is not clear yet, Ms. Chang said, whether it will appeal Wednesday’s decision from the B.C. Supreme Court.
But the ruling was already having a direct impact on Thursday on church life. The Anglican Diocese of Niagara said the B.C. decision has given them new impetus to pursue legal cases against breakaway parishes in their jurisdiction.
“Although it is a different jurisdiction, we believe that this decision will have a very important effect upon our ongoing legal efforts with the Network in Niagara,” the statement said.
The ruling also underscores deep divisions and often hard feelings that have built up around this dispute — and even a sense of regret that the battle began in the first place.
“First thing to say, I’m pleased with the decision but I have no sense of joy in the whole matter,” said Bishop Michael Ingham, head of the Diocese of New Westminster, who first decided in 2003 to allow same-sex blessings. “I think this has been a sad conflict and entirely unncessary. But the group of four do not represent the majority of conservative Anglicans. They are a fringe group.”
He said that it was up to each parish to opt to perform same-sex blessings. Eight decided to go ahead. But in 2004, when the worldwide Anglican communion called for a halt to same-sex blessing, Bishop Ingham put a moratorium on new churches performing the rite, but allowed those that were doing so to continue.
He on Thursday rejected the idea that offering same-sex blessings goes against the Gospels. Much of what Jesus spoke about, he said, concerns love and welcoming the stranger.
“The Church has evolved on many issues, including the ordination of women.”
The court decision was more than 90 pages long, but the crux of the issue can be boiled down to two key points: The Diocese of New Westminster said the main structure of the Anglican Church is the diocese and any parish within that part of the structure. The conservative group argued that once the Diocese of New Westminster allowed same-sex blessings to take place, it broke the rules of basic Christian faith and no longer had authority as a legitimate church entity.
But Wednesday’s ruling by Mr. Justice Stephen Kelleher said the diocese did not break faith when it allowed same-sex blessings, citing a general synod of the Anglican Church in 2007 that said the issue of same-sex marriage is not one of core doctrine.
Ms. Chang, however, said the judge missed a key point about Christianity and Anglicanism in particular.
“The judgement implies the Church can determine doctrine by democracy. And that shows a lack of understanding of what the Christian faith is about. Doctrine comes from scripture, the inspired word of God. And you can’t change what is in the scripture. We can’t vote on what we’ll believe.
“It’s a lack of appreciation of what Christian faith is about and a reflection of our society just how few Christians are left. It also sets a precedent not only for the Anglican churches in Canada but also for all religious denominations, in my view.”
Ms. Chang also argued that the judge’s reading was incomplete. He did not take into account that, in her view, the majority of 70 million Anglicans in the world oppose same-sex blessing as running opposite to the Gospels.
“The judge said the buck stops in Canada, that the Church has the authority to do these things. And if you don’t go along you have to sacrifice your property and all your money.”
In the meantime, the ministers of the four churches now have to contemplate the real possibility of eviction — though the diocese said there are no “time lines or next steps planned right now.”
Still, Rev. Mike Stewart of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Abbotsford said today the reality of the situation hit home.
“We came into this with our eyes open … and we realized we were prepared to do that if it was a matter of faith over buildings,” said Rev. Stewart. “The way forward for us is uncertain at the moment, that’s for sure.”
He said if his parish loses its buildings, the fight will have still been worth it.
“In the service of the Gospel sometimes sacrifices need to be made and being faithful to Jesus involves sacrifice — and if that means the building, so be it. But the mission will go forward from strength to strength.”
26/11/2009 – By Charles Lewis, National Post