BANKRUPTCY. It is the b-word, the death knell, the headline grabber.
Bankruptcy is the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the Anglican Church of Canada. In early May, the Council of General Synod will consider several options for the future of the church; bankruptcy will be one of them.
Church leaders have so far presented bankruptcy as a last option. But is it the worst option?
The facts are that the General Synod is guilty by participation and association with individuals who physically and sexually assaulted a substantial number of students at residential schools. The schools were established by federal government policy, and government set many of the operating rules and provided the bulk of the funding, however inadequate that may have been. Four Christian denominations, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist (now United Church) and Presbyterian, agreed to run most of the schools on behalf of the government.
Eventually, most of the schools were taken over by the federal government. Abuses continued.
For at least the past 40-odd years, the Anglican Church has distanced and eventually disassociated itself from the federal policies of assimilating the Native population of Canada into the general populace. The church has also worked hard at building good relations with its Native members.
The church also wants to promote “healing and reconciliation” between its Native and non-Native members, between Natives and the federal government and between Native and non-Native Canadian society. Such a task, however, requires the brokering party – the church – to be as free from taint as possible.
Since the church, whether the national body or dioceses, is being sued by Natives and the federal government over this whole situation, it severely hampers its ability to claim the necessary neutral ground to bring about the healing and reconciliation it desires.
The upshot is that by continuing to engage in legal battles, the church cannot come close to achieving its goals and it is headed towards death by a thousand cuts – or a thousand lawsuits. Death won’t come from settlements, in or out of court, it will come from being bled to death financially by the legal costs and psychologically from the sheer effort of focusing on a problem with no clear solution.
Bankruptcy begins to look attractive because it offers a constructive way out.
First, it would allow the church to direct as much of its money as possible to the victims. They were the ones injured; they are the ones who deserve whatever compensation money can bring. Secondly, it would end the legal costs: without any more lawsuits, there would be no lawyers to pay and no court costs associated with filing defences to claims. Thirdly, it would allow the church to work constructively at bringing healing and reconciliation about beween the various parties because the conflict of interest would be removed. It would still be the Anglican Church, but it would be a new corporate enterprise, one not burdened by the past, morally, politically and financially.
Lastly, it could all be done fairly, relatively cheaply, with little inconvenience to staff and relatively minor cost and inconvenience to the dioceses.
There are undoubtedly other solutions, but here is one scenario.
General Synod – the national church -exists because the church at the diocesan level wants it to exist. General Synod is not self-generated nor self-perpetuating. It exists to serve the dioceses in two major ways. It provides outreach in terms of mission and development aid to places around the world, including Canada (especially in northern, predominantly Native communities). It also provides infrastructure services like pension management, archives, prayer and hymn books and various means of communication with each other nationally, as well as providing a forum to create national standards in areas like liturgy and marriage laws.
If the dioceses still want such a structure, bankruptcy would provide the freedom to revisit their needs and the raison d’etre of a national structure.
All that’s needed is for one or two dioceses to sell some extra church property in their cities and put the money in a trust fund for the use of the new Anglican Synod, let’s call it. General Synod’s new offices – they currently exist only on paper – could be sold at fair market price to the trust fund. That would liquidate the biggest asset of the current national structure in its bankruptcy proceedings.
The new synod could pick up where the old one left off, since money continues to flow from Anglicans across the country into parishes, dioceses and on up to the national church. Some dioceses are going to be hit hard by residential schools lawsuits, so the annual budget may have to be cut. In fact, those dioceses may want to look at bankruptcy as a way of freeing themselves from the shackles of the past to get on with the work of the future.
The church’s spiritual message is that out of death comes new life. Perhaps the same holds true for the institution itself.