Courts weigh church conflicts

Published May 1, 2008

Canon Charles Masters, whose congregation voted to leave the Canadian church, outside a Hamilton, Ont., courtroom.

Two dioceses and several parishes were in court recently over conflicts involving access to churches that have voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada. The disaffected parishes, concerned about liberalization of attitudes toward sexuality and theology, voted in February to join a conservative South American Anglican church, but wish to remain in their buildings.

A British Columbia Supreme Court judge on April 5 ordered the diocese of British Columbia, which is located on Vancouver Island, to allow two priests back in to St. Mary of the Incarnation (Metchosin).

St. Mary and the diocese had been involved in negotiations. After the end of a March 15 meeting, with no further talks scheduled, the diocese changed the locks at the church. Judge Jon Sigurdson’s decision gave clergy Sharon Hayton and Andrew Hewlett the right to return and hold Sunday services. Bishop James Cowan, who presided over a service at another nearby church, St. Mary the Virgin, said he disagrees with the decision but will abide by it. “I will make no further public comment on this matter until it is settled by the courts,” he added.

In other news, the diocese of Niagara returned to Ontario Superior Court in Hamilton, Ont. on March 20, seeking access to three parishes that voted to leave the Canadian church; however, after a full day of arguments, the judge reserved a decision until an unspecified date.

Judge Jane Milanetti let stand an interim Feb. 29 ruling from another Superior Court judge that barred the diocese from sending clergy into the three churches and holding services for the minority that is loyal to the diocese and the Canadian church. The diocese was seeking an order that would stand until the question of who owns the churches is decided, a process that could take years if it comes to a trial.

In the absence of a ruling on the day that is Maundy Thursday in the church calendar, members of the three congregations were able to celebrate Good Friday and Easter services in their buildings. The three churches are St. George, Lowville; St. Hilda, Oakville and Good Shepherd, St. Catharines, all in southern Ontario.

Those loyal to the diocese met for Easter Sunday services at a United church. Kay Mighton, a member of St. George, said after the court decision that the situation “makes me feel very sad.” Lawyers for both sides said about 25 to 30 people at St. George remain loyal to the diocese, but that virtually all parishioners at St. Hilda and Good Shepherd agreed with the decision to leave. The diocese includes 98 parishes.

The Anglican Network in Canada, which includes parishes that have broken away from the national church over theological differences including homosexuality, released a statement saying it regretted that “it was necessary to defend the right of these congregations to maintain their ministries in the buildings where they have always worshipped.” The network had hoped “we could resolve all issues through amicable discussions,” said Cheryl Chang, a director of the network.

Canon Charles Masters, who has been rector of St. George for 27 years, said the lack of a decision produced an “empty feeling,” but said he and the congregation were glad to “preach the good news of Jesus” on Easter.

The diocese had asked Judge Milanetti to allow it to administer the three churches jointly with the current membership (which it called “the withdrawing members”) and allow it access for a Sunday morning service, feast day services and weddings and funerals.

Diocesan lawyer John Page alleged that the three churches, by voting to join the South American Anglican Province of the Southern Cone and seek oversight from its archbishop, violated the canons, or laws, of the diocese. Individuals may choose to leave the Canadian church, he said, but a parish cannot. He also said those who wish to remain part of the Canadian church are long-time worshippers and have family and emotional ties to their churches.

Peter Jervis, counsel for the three churches, said they contend it is the diocese that has contravened the basic tenets of traditional Anglicanism by voting last fall to allow the blessing of same-sex unions. Clergy maintain that those who disagree are welcome to continue worshipping, he said.

In other news, the conservative Anglican Essentials Federation on April 2 distributed a letter that said its “quiet, non-confrontational approach” has not “stemmed the tide” of such developments as same-sex blessings.

The letter said leaders of the federation “have determined that it is now time to chart a new course” with a “higher profile, unequivocal stand” that will be unfolding “over the next weeks and months.”

The letter also called upon conservative bishops “to take a stand, particularly in the house of bishops’ meeting” (scheduled for April 14-18). One bishop – William Anderson of the diocese of Caledonia in northern British Columbia – signed the letter, as did other members of the federation’s executive committee.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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