Court rules church properties remain with diocese of New Westminster

Published November 26, 2009

The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled yesterday that the Anglican Church of Canada’s diocese of New Westminster retains possession of four church properties worth an estimated $20 million. Members of congregations in these churches, who voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada and join the more conservative Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), claimed these properties were held in trust for them. Justice Stephen Kelleher did, however, rule that a $2.2 million bequest from a parishioner at one of the four churches should be held in trust for the building fund of the ANiC congregation.The congregation at St. John’s (Shaughnessy), the largest parish in Canada, as well as congregations at Parish of the Good Shepherd, St. Matthias and St. Luke in Vancouver, and St. Matthew’s in Abbotsford all voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada over theological differences, including objections to the blessing of same-sex unions and interpretations of Scriptural authority. In the ensuing dispute over who rightfully controlled the church properties, representatives of the parishes filed two lawsuits against the diocese. They claimed that parish properties are held in trust for the purposes of ministry consistent with historic, orthodox Anglican doctrine and practice, and that the Anglican Church of Canada had broken with that doctrine and practice, notably by allowing the blessing of same-sex unions. In his judgment, however, Justice Kelleher wrote that “a trust which freezes doctrine at a point in history is inconsistent with the history of change and evolution in Anglicanism. For example, the ACC now permits the remarriage of divorced persons. The church ordains women as priests, and there are also female diocesan bishops in the [Anglican Church of Canada]. These developments are inconsistent with what many would consider historic and orthodox Anglicanism.” He also wrote that, according to resolutions passed at General Synod 2007, the issue of same-sex blessings is one of doctrine, but not core or fundamental doctrine, for the Anglican Church of Canada. “Accordingly, there is no breach of trust on even the terms the plaintiffs put forth.”  He concluded that the parish properties are “held on trust for Anglican ministry as defined by the [Anglican Church of Canada].”The ruling also said “a parish does not have the authority to unilaterally leave the Diocese” and that “property effectively remains with the Diocese unless the Executive Committee and  Bishop agree to mortgage, sell or otherwise dispose of it.” Other parishes across the country are in the midst of similar legal battles over property, and George Cadman, chancellor for the diocese of New Westminster, said this “may well be a precedent-setting decision.”ANiC chancellor Cheryl Chang said in a statement that it would take some time for ANiC and its lawyers to review the decision. But she added, “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. At the end of the day, if forced to choose, we will have to choose our faith over our buildings.”  In a letter to be read to parishioners this Sunday, Bishop Michael Ingham of the diocese of New Westminster said he intends to invite these congregations to remain in the buildings where they worship. “I intend to appoint new clergy who will respect and continue the worshipping style of the congregation, who will also work co-operatively with me and the diocese.” His letter also said that the Anglican Church of Canada and throughout the world is a “big tent” with room for a diversity of opinion. “We have a long history of welcome and respect for all people. What unites us is a strong commitment to Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, a tradition of beautiful and sacred worship, and a compassionate response to people in many kinds of need and hardship.”Justice Kelleher did rule in favour of the plaintiffs on the question of Bishop Michael Ingham’s dismissal of the trustees of St. Matthew’s and St. Matthias and St. Luke, which he ruled “was illegal and of no force and effect.” He wrote that those elected or appointed at the annual vestry meetings on Feb. 24, 2008 “continue to hold their positions as trustees of their respective parish corporations.” But he also stipulated that those trustees must exercise their authority in accordance with the constitution, canons, rules and regulations of the diocese. In light of other parts of his decision, Justice Kelleher said they may not want to remain in those positions, but he left it to the parties to find a workable solution or return to court.Justice Kelleher also ruled that a $2.2 million bequest left to the “the building fund of Church of the Good Shepherd” by Dr. Daphne Wai-Chan Chun should be held in trust for the ANiC congregation. “Dr. Chun intended the proceeds to be applied to the building needs of the parish that served the Chinese community. That parish voted unanimously to receive Episcopal oversight from the Province of the Southern Cone and to affiliate with ANiC. In the circumstances, I conclude that a scheme whereby the funds are held on trust for the building needs of the ANiC congregation will best fulfil Dr. Chun’s charitable intent.”  “We are very grateful that Mr. Justice Kelleher understood and respected Dr. Chun’s intention when she left her bequest to our building fund” said Eric Law, a trustee of the congregation of Good Shepherd.  “We look forward to using those funds toward the building we currently worship in.”  Bishop Ingham also wrote in his letter to parishioners that his prayer is that “we might put all this sad conflict behind us and get on with the mission of Jesus Christ. No good is served by bitterness or triumphalism. The decision of the Court is clear. And the purpose of the Church is equally clear. We are here to serve the mission of God and the well-being of all of God’s children.”


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