Niagara Falls, Ont.
Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada, at their April 14-18 meeting, declined a request for national-level negotiations over church property from the Anglican Network in Canada, a group of parishes that have left the church over issues that include offering blessing ceremonies to married gay couples.
“We came to the conclusion that it is just the norm in the Anglican Church of Canada that issues of that nature are always resolved within dioceses. I don’t hold any title to property. General Synod (the national office in Toronto) doesn’t hold any title to property,” said Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the primate.
In a letter to former Anglican Church of Canada bishop Don Harvey, moderator of the network, the bishops said “any meetings need to occur with the appropriate parish and diocesan leadership.”
In the Canadian church structure, the primate functions as chief executive officer of the national office, a national pastor and international representative of the church, but has no legislative authority over dioceses.
The April 11 letter from Bishop Harvey, who is now affiliated with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in South America, called for a meeting with Archbishop Hiltz, a certain number of bishops and legal counsel that would “discuss pursuing alternate dispute resolution instead of civil litigation.”
In a newsletter released April 15, the network, which represents 15 out of the 2,800 parishes in the Canadian church, said it hoped “to seek an amicable agreement regarding employment issues and disputed property and asset claims.”
Two dioceses – Hamilton-based Niagara and Victoria-based British Columbia – are in civil litigation concerning access to churches that voted to leave, employment issues concerning their clergy and questions of property ownership.
Noting that “our hope has been that we would be able to resolve our differences outside of court,” Archbishop Hiltz also pointed out the difficulty of commencing talks while court cases are ongoing. “We can’t be weighing in once the processes are started,” he said.
All of the bishops’ discussions on the sexuality controversies within the Canadian church and worldwide Anglican Communion were closed to the public (see related story, this page). In a statement released at the end of the meeting, the bishops noted that they earlier agreed on a process called shared episcopal ministry that would allow diocesan bishops to invite their colleagues to minister to disaffected churches.
In Montreal, “four or five” parishes are exploring shared episcopal ministry, said Bishop Barry Clarke in an interview outside the session. He and the area archbishop, Bruce Stavert of Quebec, are working on a list of bishops who might come in to the diocese. Montreal voted last fall to ask the bishop to consider authorizing a rite for the blessing of same-sex marriages, but no parishes have joined the network.
Several bishops said that in the closed session, members expressed regret at seeing church disputes in court.
Bishop James Cowan of British Columbia said there is a sense among the bishops that “this is not what we ought to be about.”
“I feel sad. Why does this need to happen?” said Bishop Don Phillips of Rupert’s Land. A bishop, he said, “finds it very difficult to be assertive without being combative or aggressive. You almost don’t have that choice.”
In February, 10 churches voted to leave the Canadian church and join the Southern Cone.
The conservative Anglican Essentials Federation wrote to the bishops prior to the meeting expressing distress that they had not challenged diocesan actions that resulted in “de facto changes in the church’s theology.” Communicating to its supporters, the Federation (a group that has not left the Canadian church) called for prayer “for the orthodox bishops who will be taking a stand at this meeting.”
Outside the sessions, Bishop William Anderson of Caledonia, in British Columbia, said “the orthodox bishops continue to try to take a stand. What people mean is they want to know orthodox bishops will faithfully represent orthodox positions on the faith.”
Bishop Larry Robertson, suffragan (assistant) bishop of the Arctic, said his stated position is that “if I believe homosexual behaviour is wrong and that any form of sin leads us away from God, then the loving, caring pastoral way is to say ‘You have to change your ways.’ The pastoral way is to make a person whole.”
Bishops who support greater inclusiveness have a different interpretation of the Bible concerning homosexuality and the bishops’ joint statement at the end of their meeting noted that “we continue to be a church to which all are welcome.”
Bishops from dioceses most seriously affected by the split gave updates at the meeting of their situations. Parishes in Niagara, British Columbia, Ottawa, Toronto and New Westminster have voted to leave. In Brandon and Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, retired bishops have left the Canadian church and joined the Southern Cone.
The dioceses of Niagara, Ottawa, Montreal and New Westminster have asked their bishops to authorize a rite for same-sex blessings, but only New Westminster has implemented it. The other three bishops are continuing to consult with their colleagues and intend to continue the consultation at the summer Lambeth Conference in England, said Archbishop Hiltz.
The bishops also heard in a closed session that a Canadian church task force feels that the second draft of a proposed international Anglican covenant is an improvement, but there are still concerns.
The Anglican Communion Working Group, which met in early February, said in a report that the new draft acknowledges the covenant process will be “slow and careful,” provides a clearer recognition of the “role of laity and of the synodical decision-making processes” and recognizes diversity throughout the worldwide communion.
However, the Canadian group said it is not clear how the covenant could be changed in the future, nor how it might affect ecumenical dialogue or the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury.