Judge rules against diocese of Niagara in dispute with local churches

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Hamilton, Ont.
An Ontario Superior Court judge ruled on Feb. 29 that the diocese of Niagara may not send its clergy into two area churches in the next two weeks to hold Sunday services for members of the congregations that remain loyal after most of their fellow parishioners voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada.

“I am disappointed with the decision today, but we have to respect and abide by it. I feel for those faithful members of the parishes. We will try to make some arrangement for them if we possibly can,” said Bishop Michael Bird, who is based at the diocesan office here. It was the first court decision since 11 Anglican Canadian parishes decided, at their regular vestries (annual meetings) in February, to separate. They now identify themselves as part of the Anglican Network in Canada.

Clergy and lay people who supported separation were cheered by the ruling. “We are so thankful. We want to be able to worship together as a community uninterrupted. (Those loyal to the diocese) are more than welcome to attend any of our services,” said Rev. Ray David Glenn of St. George, Lowville.

In Niagara, in recent weeks, St. George in Lowville and St. Hilda in Oakville, at odds with the denomination over such theological differences as liberalizing attitudes towards homosexuality, decided to join a conservative South American Anglican church. A third church, Good Shepherd in St. Catharines, also voted to separate, but was not at issue in the court decision.

Justice James Ramsay closely questioned counsel for the diocese, which was the plaintiff, at one point asking lawyer John Page whether there were nearby churches that could accept the minorities from St. Hilda and St. George. In response, Mr. Page made the point that the people seeking the ministry of clergy loyal to the diocese also had ties to their local churches, where they have participated in baptisms, marriages and funerals, and felt uncomfortable after the secession votes.

Last Sunday morning, Bishop Bird went to St. George and sent Canon Brian Ruttan to St. Hilda. They conducted worship for loyalists and diocesan supporters and in the court filing were seeking to have the arrangement extended for two weeks until the issue of who owns the church property comes before the court.

Mr. Glenn said St. George’s, as “an act of Christian charity,” agreed to host Bishop Bird for the Sunday service, but was not inclined to continue the arrangement. The diocese had said it intended to support loyalists, then invited supporters from surrounding parishes for the service, which St. George’s clergy “felt was an abuse of our good faith,” he said.

In negotiations conducted last week, the two sides agreed that they would temporarily share costs of maintaining the buildings, that church wardens would disclose assets and that the two sides would not disparage each other publicly. However, they could not agree on the Sunday worship issue.

Clergy from the churches are considered suspended with pay, said Archdeacon Michael Patterson, diocesan executive officer. This means they are not supposed to be on the church premises or perform priestly duties such as leading worship. “They did not recognize the authority of the bishop and they are acting in defiance of this (suspension) as well,” said Archdeacon Patterson. “There is further action to come.”

Canon Charles Masters, rector of St. George’s, said in an interview that he and Mr. Glenn will lead worship on Sunday. Asked about his suspension, he suggested he did not recognize the diocese’s action since his church voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada. “We came under the Anglican Network in Canada,” he said.
He added that the Network soon plans to set up a payroll system for affected clergy.

The two sides are scheduled to be back in court on March 20, when the property issue will begin to be considered.

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

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