Montreal priests want licensing canon changed

By on December 1, 1998

Two priests from the Diocese of Montreal want the Anglican Church to amend controversial new rules on the licensing and firing of priests.

Canon 17 was passed at General Synod in May. It allows for priests to be fired by their bishops and have their licences revoked for any reason without right of appeal.

With the backing of their diocesan synod, Rev. Alan Perry of Lachute and Rev. Eric Reynolds of Hudson have sent a memorial to the Council of General Synod citing “deficiencies” with the canon.

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Their memorial states their concern “that the power granted to a bishop to revoke a licence is absolute, without defined parameters for use, and without respecting the normal requirements of natural justice.”

“It affects every priest in the national church … and I’ve been hearing a lot of questions from people in my diocese who want to know why on earth this thing passed,” Mr. Perry said in an interview. “General Synod, in passing this canon, made a mistake.”

He suggests the canon needs to be looked at “with a sense of sober second judgment. We need to put some checks and balances in.”

In order for any action to be taken on the memorial, a member of the Council of General Synod must raise it at a meeting in the form of a motion.

Two council members from Montreal were planning to raise the issue at a council meeting in Bolton, Ont., in November.

But any changes to the canon would not take effect until at least 2004 because it would take two meetings of General Synod to alter it.

Mr. Perry said it’s still important because, “Clergy are currently not very secure and this kind of canon makes us feel much more insecure.”

The memorial expresses concern that the “absolute power of revocation of a licence may violate provincial labour laws, and thus could be rendered null and void by a civil tribunal.”

It asks the Council of General Synod and the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada to review the canon and to propose revisions that would: specify parameters for the use of the power to revoke a licence or allow it to lapse; add a process of appeal; and define guidelines for fair severance.

Mr. Perry and Mr. Reynolds are hoping priests in other dioceses draft similar memorials.

They want to “begin a broad-based discussion across our church regarding employment practices for clergy, and how best to build a new team approach among clergy and laity as we get on with the task of building the church of the 21st century,” Mr. Perry said.

Nor do the men believe the canon will prevent messy and expensive wrongful dismissal suits, as its proponents have claimed. “Rather than preventing expensive litigation, this canon may actually cause it, because there’s no alternative provided,” Mr. Perry said.

He takes little comfort in the words of Judge Ronald Stevenson, the mover of Canon 17, that a bishop will not “abuse his or her authority.”

“An absolute power cannot be abused,” Mr. Perry said. “It can only be used.” Unless there are limitations on a power, “then its use is not subject to question or review.”

Some priests agree with the memorial but question what it can accomplish at this late date.

Jim Irvine, rector at St. Luke’s Church in Gondola Point, N.B., said “I think it’s bang on but it would have been helpful if it had been done six months before General Synod instead of six months after. It’s over. It’s passed.”

He also said, however, that priests in his diocese will draft a similar memorial at their next synod to support the push for change.

Rev. Gary Kilgore, chaplain at Bluewater Youth Centre in Goderich, Ont., said, “Maybe we really do owe it to ourselves to look at it (the canon) again … We always tell people that sinners get a second chance – so the memorial is a reminder to all of us that we all get a second chance.”

Two years ago, Mr. Kilgore settled out of court in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the Diocese of Toronto.

Bishop Andrew Hutchison of Montreal voted in favour of Canon 17 at the last General Synod but says he “welcomes the discussion around it.”

In bringing the memorial forward, the bishop said “what the mover and seconder and the synod have done is raise the issue of licensing and the seriousness of the issues that surround it.”

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