Judge reserves decision in dispute over Niagara parishes

By on March 21, 2008

Canon Charlie Masters

Hamilton, Ont.

The diocese of Niagara returned to Ontario Superior Court on March 20, seeking access to three parishes that voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada; however, after a full day of arguments, the judge reserved a decision until a later, unspecified date.

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Saying “you are not getting an answer today,” 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 Mar. 20, Maundy Thursday in the church calendar, members of the three congregations at odds with the Canadian church can 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.

Rev. Susan Wells, whom the diocese appointed to manage St. George, said those loyal to the diocese will meet for Easter Sunday services at a United church. Kay Mighton, a member of St. George’s, said the situation “makes me feel very sad. My husband and I will likely go to Grace (another Niagara church) for Good Friday.” 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.

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 are glad to “preach the good news of Jesus” this Easter weekend.

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 but at this point, we are at the mercy of the courts and we await this decision,” said Cheryl Chang, a lawyer and director of the network.

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, have violated the canons, or laws, of the diocese. Individuals may choose to leave the Canadian church, he said, “but a parish cannot. It remains in trust for the Anglican Church of Canada.” 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 with the votes to leave are welcome to continue worshipping, he said. “This is about the diocese wanting to come in and plant its flag,” he said.

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  • Solange DeSantis

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

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