Historic diocese’s future financially ‘precarious’

Bishop Donald D. Phillips
Bishop Donald D. Phillips
Published January 1, 2001
Bishop Donald D. Phillips
Bishop Donald D. Phillips

TALK ABOUT a move from the frying pan into the fire. Less than a year ago, Archdeacon Donald D. Phillips left the diocese of Qu’Appelle, which is financially shaky due to residential schools lawsuits, to become bishop of the diocese of Rupert’s Land, now also grappling with serious financial problems stemming from lawsuits.

The suits have nothing to do with residential schools, since there were none in Rupert’s Land. Yet the diocese has spent about $90,000 on legal fees and an undisclosed amount on the settlement of litigation stemming from sexual abuse allegations against Charles Griggs and Rev. James Townley-Smith.

Mr. Griggs, a former priest who renounced his orders, and Mr. Townley-Smith, who is still a priest, allegedly abused boys at Winnipeg parishes and at Anglican Island, a summer camp on Lake of the Woods. Mr. Townley-Smith pleaded guilty last month to three counts of indecent assault. Mr. Griggs is scheduled to go to trial next month.

When asked to describe the day the two men were arrested in March, 1999, then-Bishop Patrick Lee said, “Can I use the word hell?”

The diocese’s finances have gone from a surplus of about $100,000 at the beginning of the 1990s to a situation that Bishop Phillips, 46, described in an interview as “precarious.” He added that he believes the diocese will end the year in a break-even position, in terms of operating results, but has funded the legal costs through the sale of assets, mostly trust funds.

Last October, Bishop Phillips told diocesan synod that legal action “has depleted most of our easily-accessible assets.” Remaining assets include the one-story synod building, small unrestricted trust funds and an island in Lake of the Woods that used to host summer camps.

The diocese has settled one case through mediation and is seeking that route for two more currently active cases. “Like the challenge our national church is facing, this ? has the possibility of changing the nature of our diocesan structure,” Bishop Phillips told synod.

One action the diocese is pursuing is the incorporation of its archives, in order to protect them from a piecemeal sell-off, Canon Carol Throp, diocesan secretary, told Council of General Synod last November. The diocese is also pursuing the sale of Anglican Island, a 60-acre property.

Bishop Phillips said he hears a group of Anglicans is trying to raise money to buy the camp.

Bishop Phillips said, frankly, that his short time as bishop (he was consecrated in May, 2000) “has been marked by a series of highs and lows, but more highs than lows.” Among the highs, he cited “the degree of commitment to the Anglican church from all levels (in the diocese).”

Among the lows? “The impossible nature of doing the whole job,” he said. “It’s much larger than the time frame allows. You realize you are going to have to shift gears and start choosing what you will engage and pay attention to and what you won’t. It’s hard to say no,” he added.

He is also coping with the reality that leadership entails making unpopular decisions. “I still want people to see me as a good thing – ‘he’s doing a good job’ – and that is a real hazard.”

Although he said he is still trying to understand the diocesan governing structure – who does what and on what committee they do it – Bishop Phillips said he is impressed by the communication and consultation he has with the dean and the archdeacons. “They help the bishop see the complexity of the diocese,” he said. He’s also gathering parish clergy together more often than in the past – four or five times per year vs. once or twice – to keep in better touch.

Although Rupert’s Land did not have Native residential schools, it does have a significant Native population on the Peguis, Jackhead, Brokenhead and Fairford reserves. Rupert’s Land is also involved in consultations on aboriginal issues with the bordering dioceses of Brandon and Keewatin, Bishop Phillips said.

Like several dioceses, Rupert’s Land is coping with declining numbers of parishioners. “Parish rolls have shrunk by about 10 percent (in the past decade), but the givings have not dropped to the same degree,” Bishop Phillips said.

Nevertheless, “both urban and rural churches are increasingly finding it hard to fund the ministry,” he added. Part of the solution is a concept called Total Ministry, where congregations identify candidates for ordination who do not necessarily pursue a university degree but are able to administer sacraments and fulfill a pastoral function.

Anglicanism in Rupert’s Land had a remarkably diverse history.

Anglican priests had served as chaplains to the Hudson’s Bay Company since the 17th century. An Anglican presence was established in 1820, when British minister John West was sent to the area by the Church Missionary Society. Three years later, Mr. West returned to England and Rev. David Jones arrived as chaplain to the Hudson’s Bay fur traders at Fort Garry, later part of Winnipeg.

“Rupert’s Land” was quite an old name, referring to Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682), a cousin of Britain’s King Charles II and the first governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was formed in 1670.

Mr. Jones was the only clergyman for miles and thus found himself ministering to a congregation of Presbyterians, as well as Anglicans. He “adjusted Anglican liturgy to be acceptable to the Calvinist stream of the church, which resulted in what is known as Red River Anglicanism,” according to a history of the diocese. The Red River flows through Winnipeg. “The diocese has representatives from all wings of the Church – charismatics, evangelicals, liberals, traditionalists and the old ‘high’ and ‘low’ streams,” says the history.

The diocese was founded in 1849 and Bishop David Anderson was sent from England to be the first bishop of Rupert’s Land. In the 1930s, the diocesan treasurer tried to boost finances by playing the stock market, but lost all the funds and subsequently went to jail.

In 1997, the so-called Great Flood put all of the southern portion of the diocese under water, resulting in a strenuous recovery effort. Currently, the diocese covers about 28,000 square miles, with about 19,800 Anglicans on parish rolls. The see city is Winnipeg.


  • Solange DeSantis

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

Related Posts

Skip to content