The latest legal battle between traditional Anglicans and the controversial Anglican Diocese of New Westminster has resulted in a qualified victory for the diocese.
Four Anglican Network churches are considering their options, following the British Columbia Appeal Court decision. Under the ruling, the diocese — headed by maverick bishop Michael Ingham — has been awarded the “beneficial ownership” of the four properties associated with those congregations.
But the court decision did not go entirely in the direction of the diocese. A bequest currently valued at over $2 million, designated for the building fund of one of the four congregations, will go to that church, not the diocese.
In the short term — between now and January 15 — the Network congregations could file leave to appeal the B.C. decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. And the diocese, for its part, is now in a position to appoint interim clergy to conduct “diocese-led” services in the affected church buildings.
The appeal court decision is the latest episode in more than eight years of struggle between the diocese and the four churches: St. John’s (Shaughnessy), St. Matthias & St. Luke, and Good Shepherd Church, all in Vancouver; and St. Matthew’s in Abbotsford.
St. John’s, with over 1,000 regular worshippers, is one of Canada’s largest Anglican congregations. St. Matthew’s is an active group of 300. Good Shepherd is a Chinese-rooted congregation with a worshipping community of around 500. St. Matthias & St. Luke is a merger of two congregations, with a mixture of Caucasian and Asian roots.
All four chose some years ago to join the Anglican Network in Canada, a group that wanted to maintain scripture-based Anglican orthodoxy. When Ingham insisted on allowing the blessing of same-sex couples, the churches chose to affiliate with what is called the ‘Southern Cone’ group of Anglican churches. They wanted to remain Anglicans, but not under the authority of the New Westminster diocese.
The November 15 court decision expressed the view that the traditional clergy could not “remove themselves from their diocesan structures and retain the right to use properties that are held for purposes of Anglican ministry in Canada.”
The judgment also noted that Ingham “and the Diocesan Synod of New Westminster have chosen to pursue the matter to the extent they have — despite the opposition of many of their parishioners. Presumably [they] have chosen to take the risk that the policy allowing same-sex blessings will indeed prove to be ‘schismatic’; or that clergy in the diocese will for the foreseeable future find themselves ministering to vastly reduced or non-existent congregations. That, however, is their decision to make.”
“No one has ever been required to act against their conscience in this matter,” responded a November 17 statement by the diocese, which went on to assert: “No one is being asked to leave or relocate. The clergy now aligned with a different denomination will need to continue their ministry in other locations.”
The court case, it contended, “was not about sexuality nor the truth of the gospel. Rather, litigants sought to take possession of diocesan buildings and assets after they had removed themselves from the Anglican Church of Canada. The Court of Appeal refused this request, as did the B. C. Supreme Court in November of 2009. In doing so, both courts have upheld the structures and governance of historic Anglicanism. Each court recognized that decisions in the Canadian church have been reached in accordance with our own procedures and customs, and that the civil courts should not be used to determine church doctrine.”
Tim Dickson, part of the diocesan legal counsel team, was cautious about what the diocese might do over the next two months. “There is no stay of the order, so the diocese has control. It has not moved to kick people out, but has been accommodating and sensitive to the emotions at play. But it has been a long time.” A pastoral letter, due to be read in churches November 21, may shed further light on the plans of the diocese.Spokespeople on the Network side are looking to what they are calling a “discernment” process. Cheryl Chang, current Network legal advisor, suggested that “if the bishop moves in, we may have to apply for a stay.” She added: “Obviously, we are deeply disappointed by this decision, which is currently being reviewed by our legal counsel. We are awaiting their advice before any discussion about an appeal can take place.”
Chang emphasized that the four congregations “have always said that if they are forced to choose between their buildings and their faith, they will choose their faith. That position remains unchanged.”
Lesley Bentley, a spokesperson for St. John’s, expressed the strong hope that the congregation would be able to stay in the commodious and long-time home church, for Christmas at least. “But, no matter where we are, we will be carrying on a full complement of services.”
Bentley commented on the intriguing situation regarding Good Shepherd Church, which is able to retain the $2 million bequest left to its building fund. Although the court said the church could have the bequest, it has been held in trust because of the ongoing litigation.
She said Good Shepherd will likely use those funds to pay down many “second mortgages held by members” to purchase the former Metropolitan Tabernacle building in the Mount Pleasant area. The church first obtained use of the building when it outgrew its 19th Avenue church, through a swap with the declining Met group that wanted to move to a neighbourhood model. Later it purchased the tabernacle. It is the 19th Avenue church that the court has ruled will go to the diocese.
Meanwhile, the Networkers will be working on two fronts. One involves the fact that many Network churches across Canada have been awaiting a final decision on the west coast situation, to see if it will provide a model.
And they have announced plans to develop an assertive church planting program to meet the apparent public interest in orthodox and evangelical Anglicanism. In September, a Delta, B.C. meeting of Network church planters, consulting with members of the traditional Anglican Church of North America announced intentions to develop “1,000 new biblically-faithful Anglican churches throughout North America by mid-2014.”
Regarding the possibility that her congregation might have to vacate its premises, Bentley observed: “While it is sad to have to contemplate leaving our church home for a diocese that has no need for the building, we consider it an honour to stand for orthodoxy.”