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Anglican dissidents lose their land

They'll have to run their ministry elsewhere, diocese says after court ruling

Four dissident Vancouver-area Anglican parishes opposed to same-sex blessings will have to hand over the church land and buildings they sought to hang onto after splitting from the diocese of New Westminster.

So says a Nov 15 decision from the BC Court of Appeal upholding a 2009 BC Supreme Court decision that said the millions of dollars worth of property would remain with the diocese headed by Bishop Michael Ingham.

A statement from the Diocese of New Westminster says the courts’ decisions uphold “the structures and governance of historic Anglicanism.”

It was Ingham’s 2002 decision to bless gay unions — a situation that began at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver’s West End — that sparked a rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The four dissident churches — Vancouver’s St John’s Shaughnessy, Parish of the Good Shepherd, St Matthias and St Luke and Abbotsford’s St Matthews — argued that Ingham and the Diocese of New Westminster had departed from the traditional teachings of the church.

But, says the diocese in a statement on Nov 16, “when the Synod of the Diocese voted for a third time in 2002 to bless committed, faithful same-sex relationships it was made quite clear that such permission was optional, not mandatory. No one has ever been required to act against their conscience in this matter.”

The four parishes sought episcopal oversight with a South American bishop and claimed the land and buildings, valued at about $20 million, as theirs in the court action.

Court documents indicate some 24 parishes have left the Canadian church and aligned themselves with more conservative Anglican groups around the world. The Anglican Network in Canada has become a rallying group for the dissident parishes.

“The clergy now aligned with a different denomination will need to continue their ministry in other locations,” the diocese statement says.

The dissidents argued in the Court of Appeal that church property is held in trust for Anglican ministry on the basis of a shared belief system and a shared commitment to the constitution of the church.

They argued that Ingham’s actions have made that trust unworkable.

The diocese argued that trust is held by the diocese and not the parishes.

BC Supreme Court Justice Steven Kelleher ruled parishes do not have the right to decide unilaterally to leave the diocese.

In the appeals court, lawyers argued the justices need not concern themselves with religious issues but whether or not parish assets were held in trust.

In their unanimous decision, Justices PD Lowry, Nicole Garson and Mary Newbury ruled against the dissident churches.

“The purpose of the trusts on which the parish corporations hold the church buildings and other assets is to further Anglican ministry in accordance with Anglican doctrine, and that in Canada, the General Synod has the final word on doctrinal matters,” Newbury wrote for the panel.

“This is not to say that the plaintiffs are not in communion with the wider Anglican Church — that is a question on which I would not presume to opine. I do say, however, that members of the Anglican Church in Canada belong to an organization that has subscribed to ‘government by bishops.’

“The plaintiffs cannot in my respectful opinion remove themselves from their bishop’s oversight and the diocesan structure and retain the right to use properties that are held for purposes of Anglican ministry in Canada,” Newbury wrote, noting the decision was arrived at with “much anxious reflection.”

Ruling otherwise would place the court in the midst of church affairs, a situation for which there is no precedent, the judges decided.

The dissident parishes have the right of appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.