Acutely aware of the eyes of the Canadian Anglican Church and of those of the worldwide communion on what is likely to be their last diocesan synod, Cariboo delegates voted to authorize their bishop and executive council to wind up the diocese in the next 12 months.
Bankruptcy is all but inevitable, chancellor Bud Smith, a former British Columbia attorney general, told synod. “The diocese of Cariboo is broke. That’s the hard cold truth of the matter. Financially we are toast. Spiritually we may very well be yeast but financially we are toast.”
Mr. Smith was referring to the hand-lettered yellow buttons almost 100 delegates and observers wore during the Oct. 12-14 synod: “We’re not toast. We’re yeast.”
Mr. Smith sounded one note of hope, saying that the federal government, under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, has begun to talk seriously with the church about resolving the issue of liability over residential schools. But any deal is unlikely to be reached in time to save Cariboo from bankruptcy, he added.
Still, that “faint hope” led to approval of a resolution authorizing the bishop and executive committee to act on any proposals from the government that would be affordable and would benefit the survivors of St. George’s Residential School.
Members of synod spoke eloquently and passionately on such weighty questions as whether they should voluntarily give up to the government every last stick of parish property and then start afresh with Native peoples at their side.
“All eyes are on us now,” said Rev. Mark Lemon of St. John’s in Quesnel. “The Canadian church, the worldwide communion is watching what we’re doing now very carefully. How do we lance the poison that’s been part of our body for these many years?”
Cariboo is a mostly rural diocese of 4,000 in British Columbia’s interior that has a budget of about $550,000 a year. In the past three years, it has run up about $350,000 in legal fees over litigation relating to St. George’s Residential School in Lytton, B.C. The dioceses’ assets are now depleted, even though only one judgment, which assessed liability at 60-40 between the church and the government, has been handed down so far.
There are, however, eight other cases before the British Columbia Supreme Court. Liability is not at issue, just the size of the judgments.
Another six cases are awaiting trial. In all but two of those 14, the Native plaintiffs sued only the federal government; the government then sued the church.
A key issue for the diocese is determining who really owns parish property. Cariboo contends it holds the properties in trust for the parishes, and that they cannot be claimed by the government to pay the diocese’s share of settlements.
The only real disagreement at synod came over a resolution on parish properties, which was moved by Ken Pite and seconded by Rev. Catherine Morrison of the Lytton parish. Providing there is consensus among parishes, the resolution called on titles of all parish properties to be handed to the government so that new places of worship can then be created.
“Our parish was saying we have to make a courageous step,” Ms. Morrison said in an interview. “How do we counter this perception we’re in a defensive position?”
“Our reluctance to let go of parish lands is keeping us stagnant,” added Mr. Pite, a teacher at the local high school. “It’s hard to see losing parish lands as an issue when we see people who have lost so much more.”
Both said they doubted the resolution would pass but believed it needed to be said.
A number of speakers disagreed and it was a Native survivor of St. George’s, Gloria Moses, who moved, successfully, that the resolution be tabled. In an interview, Ms. Moses said she too had suffered at St. George’s but she had also received a valuable education.
Rev. Viktor Gumdel said in an interview he saw the Cariboo synod marking the change between an established church and a renewed, grassroots, dissident church that is compassionate and empathetic. Mr. Gumdel, head of pastoral care at the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, was a member of an underground Roman Catholic Church in the Czech Republic.
“The buildings are not the issue,” he said. “The churches are a window and an icon to God. Let’s keep the icon of God and incorporate this new vision.”
He and others also worried about the precedent that would be set for other dioceses and churches if Cariboo voluntarily relinquished all its property.
Mr. Smith, the chancellor, advised parishes to wait until it is determined whether or not the buildings are really theirs to give away.
Synod heard that for the first time, new priests are becoming hard to recruit and some parishioners are becoming less involved in the church. Some people have cut the church out of their wills, fearing their money will go to lawyers.
Bishop Jim Cruickshank did deliver some good news to the synod, noting that for the first time this year, parishioners contributed a greater amount to the national church than they received in grants. He talked of God “pruning” the church and his conviction that it will grow back.
“I pray the day will come when the litigation will be behind us, we will be able to reflect with fresh gospel eyes in a spirit of forgiveness and move from litigation to liberation.”
Archbishop David Crawley, metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon, told synod he would try to ensure the parishes will have a say in determining their future, if the diocese ceases to exist. “I promise you that you will not be left by the wayside.”