Bishops decline request from network for national talks

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Members of the Canadian house of bishops listen to presentations at their spring meeting. In foreground, L to R, bishops Bruce Howe of Huron, Colin Johnson of Toronto and Andrew Atagotaaluk of the Arctic.

Niagara Falls, Ont.

Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada, at their April 14-18 meeting, declined a request for national-level negotiations over church property from the Anglican Network in Canada, a small group of parishes that have decided to leave the church over issues that include offering blessing ceremonies to married gay couples.

“As we discussed the proposal, we came to the conclusion that it is just the norm in the Anglican Church of Canada that issues of that nature are always resolved within dioceses. I don’t hold any title to property. General Synod (the national office in Toronto) doesn’t hold any title to property,” said Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Canadian church.

In a letter to former Anglican Church of Canada bishop Don Harvey, moderator of the network, the bishops said “any meetings need to occur with the appropriate parish and diocesan leadership.”

In the Canadian church structure, the primate functions as chief executive officer of the national office, a national pastor and international representative of the church, but has no legislative authority over dioceses.

The April 11 letter from Bishop Harvey, who is now affiliated with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in South America, called for a meeting with Archbishop Hiltz, a certain number of bishops and legal counsel that would “discuss pursuing alternate dispute resolution instead of civil litigation which is destructive to the mission of the church.”

In a newsletter released April 15, the network, which represents 15 out of the 2,800 parishes in the Canadian church, said it hoped “to seek an amicable agreement regarding employment issues and disputed property and asset claims, rather than resorting to the secular courts.”

As reported earlier in the Anglican Journal, two dioceses – Hamilton, Ont.-based Niagara and Victoria-based British Columbia – are in civil litigation concerning access to churches that voted to leave, employment issues concerning their clergy and questions of property ownership.

Noting that “our hope has been that we would be able to resolve our differences outside of court,” Archbishop Hiltz also pointed out the difficulty of commencing talks while court cases are ongoing. “We can’t be weighing in once the processes are started,” he said.

All of the bishops’ discussions on the sexuality controversies within the Canadian church and worldwide Anglican Communion were closed to the public. In a statement released at the end of the meeting, the bishops noted that they earlier agreed on a process that would allow diocesan bishops to invite their colleagues to minister to disaffected churches.

“In the midst of these challenges, we repeat that we have put in place a process for shared episcopal ministry,” the statement said.

“We created the model and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s panel of reference looked at it and commended it. Regardless of how they (the parishes) feel about the Anglican Church of Canada, you don’t have to leave,” said Archbishop Hiltz.

In Montreal, “four or five” parishes are exploring shared episcopal ministry, said Bishop Barry Clarke in an interview outside the session. He and the area archbishop, Bruce Stavert of Quebec, are working on a list of bishops who might come in to the diocese. Montreal voted last fall in favour of offering same-sex blessings, but none of its parishes have joined the network.

Several bishops said that in the closed session, members expressed regret at seeing church disputes in court.

Bishop James Cowan of British Columbia said there is a sense among the bishops that “this is not what we ought to be about.”

“I feel sad. Why does this need to happen?” said Bishop Don Phillips of Rupert’s Land. A bishop, he said, “finds it very difficult to be assertive without being combative or aggressive. You almost don’t have that choice.” When there are property issues, he said, “it seems to get nasty.”

It was the bishops’ first meeting since 10 churches in February voted to split from the Canadian church and join the Southern Cone.

The conservative Anglican Essentials Federation wrote to the bishops prior to the meeting expressing distress that they had not challenged diocesan actions that resulted in “de facto changes in the church’s theology.” Communicating to its supporters, the Federation (a parallel group to the Essentials Network that has not left the Canadian church) called for prayer “for the orthodox bishops who will be taking a stand at this meeting.”

Outside the sessions, Bishop William Anderson of Caledonia, in northern British Columbia, who is episcopal visitor to the federation, said “the orthodox bishops continue to try to take a stand. What people mean is they want to know orthodox bishops will faithfully represent orthodox positions on the faith both in what we say in this house and how we vote and also when we are back home in our own dioceses.”

Bishop Larry Robertson, suffragan (assistant) bishop of the Arctic, said his stated position is that “if I believe homosexual behaviour is wrong and that any form of sin leads us away from God, then the loving, caring pastoral way is to say ‘You have to change your ways.’ The pastoral way is to make a person whole.”

Bishops who support greater inclusiveness have a different interpretation of the Bible concerning homosexuality and the bishops’ joint statement at the end of their meeting noted that “we continue to be a church to which all are welcome.”

Bishops from dioceses most seriously affected by the split gave updates at the meeting of their situations. Parishes in Niagara, British Columbia, Ottawa, Toronto and New Westminster have voted to leave. In Brandon and Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, retired bishops have left the Canadian church and joined the Province of the Southern Cone.

The dioceses of Niagara, Ottawa, Montreal and New Westminster have asked their bishops to authorize a rite for same-sex blessings, but only New Westminster has implemented them. The other three bishops are continuing to consult with their colleagues and intend to continue the consultation at the summer Lambeth Conference in England, said Archbishop Hiltz.

The bishops also heard in a closed session that a Canadian church task force feels that the second draft of a proposed international Anglican covenant is a great improvement, but there are still concerns.

The Anglican Communion Working Group, which met in early February, said in a report that the new draft acknowledges the covenant process will be “slow and careful,” provides a clearer recognition of the “role of laity and of the synodical decision-making processes” and recognizes diversity throughout the worldwide communion.

However, the Canadian group said it is not clear how the covenant could be changed in the future, nor how it might affect ecumenical dialogue; the group also expressed concern about an appendix that, among other things, “casts the Archbishop of Canterbury in a quasi-judicial role.”

Bishops also received updates on the work of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, and the International Anglican Women’s Network. They discussed aspects of attending the decennial Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, scheduled for July 16 to Aug. 4.

The national native bishop, Mark MacDonald, also updated the house on the March church leaders’ tour that highlighted the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission concerning the former native residential school system.

(Editor’s note: A correction has been made to this story, first published on April 18.)

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Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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