A fight over Anglican church property stemming from the bishop of New Westminster’s decision to allow same-sex couple blessings has been put to rest for now in the BC Supreme Court.
On Nov 25, Justice Stephen Kelleher ruled that millions of dollars worth of land and buildings claimed by four dissident parishes would remain with the diocese headed by Bishop Michael Ingham.
It was Ingham’s decision in 2002 to bless same-sex pairings — which began at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver’s West End — that sparked a rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
While there are 78 parishes in the diocese, the dissident ones are Vancouver’s St John’s Shaughnessy, Parish of the Good Shepherd, St Matthias and St Luke and Abbotsford’s St Matthews.
The four plaintiff churches argued that Ingham and the diocese “have departed from the traditional teaching of the Anglican Church on issues of human sexuality,” Kelleher wrote. “That traditional belief, representing the teaching of the Christian Church for 2000 years, is that sexual relations belong only in a faithful marriage between a man and a woman. Orthodox Anglicans believe that to go beyond treating homosexual persons with understanding and concern and to bless homosexual unions is to countenance same-sex unions as a gift from God.”
“The plaintiffs view this as an abandonment of Christian Scripture, and their respective congregations have left the diocese as a consequence,” Kelleher notes.
The four parishes sought episcopal oversight elsewhere, and claimed the land and buildings as theirs in the court action.
They argued 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 Ingham’s actions have made that trust unworkable.
Ingham argued that trust is held by the diocese and not the parishes.
Kelleher ruled parishes do not have the right to decide unilaterally to leave the diocese without consent of the executive committee and bishop.
As such, he ruled, the properties remain with the diocese.
Further, Kelleher says, the congregations do not have the authority to determine what “constitutes ministry consistent with historic, orthodox Anglican doctrine and practice.”
“I would conclude that the parish properties are held on trust for Anglican ministry as defined by the [Anglican Church of Canada],” he ruled.
In a statement, Ingham invited the dissident parishes to return.
“My prayer is that we might all put this sad conflict behind us and get on with the mission of Jesus Christ. No good is served by bitterness or triumphalism,” Ingham says.
“We are here to serve the mission of God and the well-being of all God’s children.”
It remains to be seen if the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), which represents 33 dissident parishes with 3,500 worshippers across the country, will appeal Kelleher’s decision.
“It is a great concern to hear that a majority can redefine and change the doctrine of the church and that those who wish to remain faithful to the church’s teaching must change their beliefs or sacrifice their buildings,” says ANiC Chancellor Cheryl Chang.
“At the end of the day, if forced to choose, we will have to choose our faith over our buildings,” Chang says.
Ingham was nominated as Xtra West’s Straight Ally of the Year in 2008 for his unwavering support of queer rights in the face of international criticism.
As far back as 2001, Ingham was clearly torn by the rift.
“I feel myself to be in a Church where theology has become a grim and humourless affair, a struggle not for truth but for power, characterized at its worst by superficial analysis, threats and personal attacks,” he told a national Anglican conference in Langley, BC. “Liberals accuse conservatives of lacking compassion, a charge that I reject. Conservatives accuse liberals of abandoning orthodoxy and scripture, a charge I equally reject.”
Even after he approved the blessings following lengthy discussion, Ingham came under attack from the highest levels of the church.
The head of the church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called the move “schismatic” and said that it “undermines marriage” and “makes us a very embarrassing partner in ecumenical circles as well.”