Former New Westminster clergy and lay leaders sue diocese

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Seventeen former clergy and former lay leaders of three parishes on Sept. 9 filed a lawsuit against the diocese of New Westminster and its bishop, Michael Ingham, over the diocese’s decision to evict breakaway priests who continue to use diocesan properties and to dismiss trustees believed to be supportive of them. The plaintiffs have asked the B.C. Supreme Court to declare that the dismissal of the trustees is “of no force and effect,” and that the parish corporations “or, in the alternative, the trustees” and not the diocese hold the property of the parishes in trust. It also asked the court to declare that the bishop “has no jurisdiction or authority to dismiss or appoint trustees to parish corporations.” It also asked the court to issue a “permanent injunction concerning the use of the property of the parishes.” The lawsuit was filed in response to a diocesan decision on Aug. 26 asking clergy who had left the diocese and the Anglican Church of Canada because of bitter disputes over the issue of homosexuality to vacate their former parishes. The diocese also said that under a provision in its canons (church law) it was returning control of the parishes to the diocese. The diocese identified the former clergy asked to vacate the church properties as Trevor Walters, Michael Stewart, and Don Gardner of St. Matthew’s Abbotsford, and Simon Chin of St. Matthias and St. Luke in Vancouver. On May 11, “each of them declared they had voluntarily left the ordained ministry of the Anglican Church of Canada. They claimed to have come under jurisdiction of a bishop reporting to the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone, which is based in six South American countries,” said an earlier statement from the diocese. “Such foreign jurisdiction is not recognized by the Anglican Church of Canada.” (The priests were also among those who walked out when the diocese of New Westminster synod approved the blessing of same-sex unions in 2002). The parishes of St. Matthew’s and St. Matthias and St. Luke had voted in February to realign with the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC) and said they were now under the Episcopal authority of Bishop Donald Harvey, a retired bishop of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, who left the Anglican Church of Canada and joined the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone last year. They joined eight other conservative parishes that have left over what they believe to be a growing liberal view of homosexuality within the Anglican Church of Canada. Seven of the 12 plaintiffs are former clergy and former trustees of St. Matthew’s and St. Matthias and St. Luke, Vancouver. In its formal Canon 15 notice, the diocese said that the “orderly management and operation” of each parish had been affected “by reason that its former incumbent
clergy have abandoned ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada” yet continued to use and occupy parish buildings and other properties “with the apparent concurrence of the wardens and trustees of the Parish Corporation.” An article from the diocese of New Westminster’s Web site, www.vancouver.anglican.ca noted that “five of the people bringing the action are former diocesan clergy or parish – officials at St. John’s Shaughnessy, Vancouver – although to date the diocese has taken no action against the parish.” (Earlier, Dean and Commissary (Acting Bishop) Peter Elliot said in a memorandum to clergy that no action has yet been taken at two other parishes – Good Shepherd and St. John’s Shaughnessy — whose clergy have also left the Anglican Church of Canada. “Implementing this canon is a time-consuming process,” he said. “We deeply regret that some individuals who claim affiliation with the Anglican Network in Canada have seen fit to commence legal proceedings against the diocese and the bishop,” said George Cadman, the diocesan chancellor (legal adviser). “Chancellor Cadman said that the diocese will respect the outcome of the civil court process, and hoped that the dissidents will do the same,” said the diocesan Web site. “Although the diocese regrets that the matter is now in court, it will mount a strong defence and respond, in accordance with court rules,” he said.The diocese has 14 days to file its statement of defence. Cheryl Chang, the chancellor of the AniC, said that in lodging the lawsuit, “the fundamental question to be ultimately determined is whether the trustees of the parish hold the property ‘in trust’ for the diocese or to the parish congregation.” She added that, “at this time, we are simply asking the court to clarify the trustees’ responsibilities until the larger question can be settled.”In a press statement, she added, “These trustees were elected by the people of the parish to safeguard the ministries and assets of the parish and, in that capacity, they have certain legal responsibilities. Now the diocese is demanding they hand over the keys and assets. They need the courts to clarify their responsibilities so they can act accordingly.”

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Marites N. Sison
Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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