B.C. Supreme Court begins to hear case over New Westminster diocese properties

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The Supreme Court of British Columbia began hearing arguments this week to decide who owns disputed church buildings and resources: the Anglican diocese of New Westminster or parishes that have split away from the Anglican Church of Canada.Two lawsuits were filed against the diocese of New Westminster and its bishop, Michael Ingham, by clergy who cut ties with the Anglican Church of Canada and individuals who say they are the lawful trustees of church properties and resources for several congregations that also voted to leave the church. Other hearings have resulted in decisions about interim possession and sharing of Anglican church buildings in British Columbia as well as Ontario, but this trial, which is scheduled to last three weeks, is the first in Canada to rule on which side owns the buildings and resources.One suit was filed by Rev. David Short, Rev. Trevor Walters, and Rev. Simon Chin who lead congregations at St. John’s (Shaughnessy) in Vancouver, St. Matthew’s in Abbotsford, B.C. and St. Matthias and St. Luke in Vancouver, respectively, and 14 other individuals. The other was filed by Rev. Stephen Leung of Good Shepherd Church in Vancouver and four other people.The clergy left their ministries with the Anglican Church of Canada in 2008 over theological differences, including issues such as the blessing of same-sex unions, and they were asked to vacate their former parishes. Many of their parishioners voted to leave the church and join the more conservative Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), which is now a part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). ACNA is comprised of clergy and congregations that have left the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church in the U.S. and hopes to be recognized as a new, theologically-defined province in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Meanwhile, these churches have aligned themselves with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is based in South America. However, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has stated that the only ecclesial body he recognizes in Canada is the Anglican Church of Canada. “Essentially what the judge has to decide is whether this is a case of division or departure,” ANiC chancellor Cheryl Chang said. ANiC’s view is that “this is not an issue of just a few parishes leaving the church. This is an issue of the church that has divided, and is it really fair and just that one party should get all the property and assets when the church divides?” she said. According to a summary on the St. John’s (Shaughnessy) Web site, the four ANiC congregations are asking the court to clarify who “the proper trustees” are – those elected by the congregations or those appointed by the diocese? Court documents show that the plaintiffs seek a ruling that trustees “hold parish property in their trust for their congregations for the purpose of ministry consistent with historic, orthodox Anglican doctrine and practice, and that the original purpose of those trusts is unalterable and requires the diocese of New Westminster … and its members to be in full communion with each other, and with other Anglicans throughout Canada and throughout the world.” Some conservative primates (national archbishops) have declared that they are in an “impaired communion” with the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church in the U.S. over the blessing of same-sex unions, which have been approved in the diocese of New Westminster since 2002, and the ordination of a gay bishop in the diocese of New Hampshire. George Cadman, chancellor of the diocese of New Westminster, said that the plaintiffs are arguing “in essence that the Anglican Church of Canada has departed from the faith of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the diocese likewise, so they should be allowed to keep the buildings.” Ms. Chang said the plaintiffs are not asking the judge to decide this “doctrinal question, who’s left and who hasn’t, because let’s face it, the Communion and even the Anglican Church of Canada’s Primate’s Theological Commission that just came out with the Galilee Report, still can’t decide that issue.” It is, however, one of the facts to consider, she said.And the question of who left who is entering testimony. On May 26, the court heard that Bishop Ingham had asked the retiring bishop of the diocese of Algoma, Ronald Ferris, to consider assisting him last year by serving as a pastoral bishop to conservative parishes in his diocese under the shared episcopal ministry plan set out by Canadian house of bishops. But Bishop Ferris, who relinquished his Anglican Church of Canada licence in January and joined ANiC, testified that he felt strongly that he couldn’t serve as a bishop within a diocese that, in his opinion, had departed from biblical teaching and blessed same sex unions. “I knew I couldn’t work in a system which had broken with the Anglican Communion,” Bishop Ferris told the court. The diocese is arguing that it has not departed from its faith, and in its court documents states that the “current dispute over homosexuality is the latest in a long series of debates within Anglicanism as it adapts to social change. Other recent debates include the remarriage of divorced persons and the ordination of women.” In its introduction to the case, the diocese added that after a long series of debates, “neither the general synod nor the diocesan synod has resolved the issues as the plaintiffs would wish, however, and so the plaintiffs have sued, alleging that the church properties are held on a trust that would freeze Anglicanism as they would define it.”On the subject of the trusts and properties, the diocese is arguing that the plaintiffs’ action “is utterly groundless and ought to be dismissed on the basis of any of the following four points. First, the church properties are held in the name of the parish corporations, which are inherently part of the diocese and have no lawful power to leave it. Second, the Anglican Church of Canada’s sophisticated governance structure supersedes any trust. It allows for the diocese’s authorization of the blessing of same-sex unions, but in any event, a breach of that structure would not lead to the break-up of the church. Third, any trust that might apply the properties in this context is plainly not defined as the plaintiffs allege. Last, even if the trust were defined as the plaintiffs allege, it has not been breached.”

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Leigh Anne Williams
Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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