Niagara to share churches

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An Ontario judge ruled on May 5 that the diocese of Niagara must be allowed to share three church buildings where congregations have voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada over theological issues that include blessing ceremonies for gay couples.

Judge Jane Milanetti of the Ontario Superior Court wrote in her decision that “there will be joint possession and administration of the three church properties.” She ordered that the churches – St. George in Lowville, St. Hilda in Oakville and Good Shepherd in St. Catharines, all in southern Ontario – will each be managed by one representative of the congregation and one diocesan administrator.

In addition, she said, any dispute will be referred to an arbitrator; the diocese will have access to each church on Sundays between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and on other feast days; it will also have access for weddings and funerals. The two parties will apportion expenses “based on the use of each parish property by each party,” wrote Judge Milanetti.

The decision represented a victory for the Hamilton, Ont.-based diocese, which had gone to court to gain access to the church buildings in order to protect what it sees as the church’s heritage and minister to the minority members of the congregations who remained loyal to the diocese.

At St. George, about 40 people who remained loyal to the Canadian church were worshipping at a nearby United church since the vote in February to separate, but the votes at St. Hilda and Good Shepherd to separate were unanimous.

The diocese released a statement saying it was pleased with the decision “and is now anxious to move forward.” Archdeacon Michael Patterson, executive officer to Bishop Michael Bird, said in the statement that the diocese is still “anxious to pursue constructive dialogue with those in the church who have taken a different view throughout this matter.”

Clergy appointed by the diocese held services in the churches after the ruling. At St. George, Rev. Susan Wells told about 40 congregants on May 11, Pentecost Sunday, that it was “a bittersweet moment” since “there are other Christians who feel they cannot share this space with us.”

Paula Valentine, a member of St. Hilda’s parish council, told the Journal after the court ruling that Judge Milanetti’s decision “was a blow.” Since St. Hilda normally has Sunday services at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., the decision giving the diocese access at that time is “a total disruption.” St. Hilda’s congregation worshipped at a nearby Christian school and St. George’s congregation used a chapel at a Christian broadcasting facility about 30 km away. “We will find a way to continue our ministry,” said Ms. Valentine. Good Shepherd indicated it was willing to share the building by scheduling service times outside the diocesan access hours.

The diocese had sought the interim court order until the legal question of who owns the church properties is resolved.

In her order, Judge Milanetti said that “it is my preliminary view that a group who chooses to leave the association they voluntarily joined and then take the property with them (without even the possibility of sharing the property) is unreasonable.” She also said that the properties of St. Hilda and Good Shepherd are held in the name of the diocese and St. George is held in trust for the diocese.

“I find that the synod of the diocese of Niagara owns all three properties,” she wrote.

Archdeacon Patterson said the diocese made an initial court filing on May 2 concerning the property issue. “Judge Milanetti gave us a thoughtful and reasoned response. We believe the judgment will go a ways toward assisting us,” he commented.

The judge also ruled that the defendants – the three churches – must pay the diocese’s court costs. Archdeacon Patterson declined to comment on the total of those costs.

The network said it was disappointed by the decision and is considering an appeal.

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

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