Priests worry about becoming licensing canon fodder

By on October 1, 1998

Anglican clergy across the country are feeling upset and betrayed after a new licensing canon was passed at General Synod in May. Canon 17 states priests can be fired by their bishops and have their licences revoked for any reason and can’t appeal.

The priest can request arbitration about the length of notice or the financial settlement in lieu of notice, but not over the termination itself.

“Shock, dismay, anger – these might well express the response held by many clergy across the national church at the passing of this canon,” said Jim Irvine, rector of the parish in Gondola Point, New Brunswick. “But pass it we did … We allow this lack of justice by our indifference and carelessness.”

“It’s like using a shotgun to kill a mosquito,” said Rev. Gary Kilgore, chaplain at Bluewater Youth Centre in Goderich, Ontario. Two years ago, Mr. Kilgore settled a wrongful-dismissal suit with the Diocese of Toronto out of court. He’s concerned this new canon, with its powers to remove a priest’s licence, goes too far.

“Not only are you being fired from a parish, but by the removal of your licence, it’s the equivalent of being disbarred,” Mr. Kilgore said.

“It’s like we no longer live in a rational system,” said Rev. Paul McCracken, a part-time Anglican priest in Saint John, N.B., who now works full-time for the government. “It must be scary for young candidates entering the profession. It must give them cause to wonder about their future.”

“I have tremendous concerns around the canon,” said Rev. Bill Ranson, rector of the parish of Pasadena/Cormack in the Diocese of Western Newfoundland.

“The bishop has the power to get rid of you on a whim … It’s kind of a scary scenario.”

“If I was an active priest in the Diocese of Fredericton or some other diocese in Canada at this time, I would be looking over my shoulder frequently,” said Rev. Barry Cohen-Thorley, a retired priest who’s on a disability pension in Saint John. “This is not a healthy way to be living.”

Many of the clergy who disagree with the new canon are mystified as to why priests who attended General Synod didn’t vote it down.

“I don’t understand why the clergy voted for it,” Mr. Irvine said. “It is unfortunate that the discussion follows the synod. Had it preceded the synod, possibly clergy delegates would have defeated the canon.”

“It’s like voting in favour of your own execution,” Mr. McCracken said. He believes priests are now going to have to be extra careful about what they say in public, particularly on controversial issues such as homosexuality, when they know their bishop has a different opinion.

“People will be less bold to speak out,” Mr. McCracken said. “One of the roles of clergy is the prophetic role … the calling to speak out on issues. But if a priest’s vision is not the same as his bishop, the priest may feel inhibited. That prevents him from fulfilling his calling.”

Priests are also worried what fired clergy will do for a living once they’ve been fired and their licences revoked.

“What will they do?,” asked Mr. Kilgore. “I don’t know. That’s a very good question.”

“Sell encyclopedias? Sell Electroluxes?,” wonders Mr. Irvine.

Despite the furore among priests, some people don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Ronald Stevenson, who moved the adoption of Canon 17 at synod, is chancellor of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada. He said the new rules are needed.

“Synod accepted that this broad authority is needed to enable bishops to act when the good of a parish, the good of the church as a whole, or the good of the licensee, requires it. Another objective was to create a process for resolving disputes within the church rather than subject clergy, bishops, parishes and dioceses to expensive wrongful-dismissal litigation.”

Other members of General Synod, who spoke when the canon was being discussed last May, argued in favour of it because wrongful-dismissal suits are costing the church too much money. Mr. Kilgore’s lawsuit, for example, ended up costing the Diocese of Toronto about a half million dollars in legal fees and other costs. Mr. Kilgore received $75,000.

Mr. Stevenson, a former Court of Queen’s Bench judge in New Brunswick, also said priests shouldn’t fear what bishops will do with their new powers.

“I do not believe clergy should worry about bishops using this new authority for personal or frivolous reasons, or for no reason at all. The authority will probably be used only rarely. Any bishop who abuses his or her authority under the canon will incur the wrath of many, not least of those of us who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to the development of the canon.”

Some priests say it’s fine to claim the new powers will not be abused, but they’re not entirely convinced.

Said Mr. Kilgore, “Do I trust that they have honest and pure intentions – yes. Do I trust any system to stay pure and not abuse anyone – no.

“I think that where the temptation will come in is if a bishop thinks a priest is bad at his job. Instead of sitting down and talking transfer, it’s real easy to simply fire the priest.”

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Mr. Irvine said.

Rev. Terrance Trites agrees with the concerns of Anglican priests. A Presbyterian minister, he said he was fired from his parish in Nova Scotia after a small group of vocal parishioners forced him out. Mr. Trites now lives in Moncton and publishes a quarterly magazine called the Anvil. He also runs a support group for fired clergy called Ministers to Mutual Aid. Mr. Trites said giving bishops absolute power over priests is scary. “There’s no safeguards to prevent abuse of that power … It puts far too much authority in the hands of one person.”

Ian Outerbridge is a lawyer in Toronto who has represented dozens of Anglican and United Church clergy in wrongful-dismissal suits. He said the new canon is an attempt to bring church law on licensing more in line with the rules of the secular world.

“There’s no doubt they’ve given the bishop the power to dismiss,” Mr.Outerbridge said. “They may live to regret voting in favour of it.”

He said the canon might accomplish its goal of seeing fewer wrongful-dismissal suits in the secular courts. But he said the new canon simply shifts the settlement of the dispute from a public courtroom to a private arbitration panel, appointed by the church.

“They’ve removed the assessment of damages from the court and transferred it to an arbitration panel,” he said. He thinks this shift may have negative consequences for priests attempting to get the most money they can before they’re cut loose.

“Arbitration panels aren’t likely to be as generous as the courts would be. They also might not be as objective as the courts would be.”

Some priests who are upset about the canon think the biggest tragedy is that the church is moving to standardize its rules and laws with that of the secular world.

“We used to teach the world,” Mr. Kilgore said. “Now we’re learning from it.

“The tragedy is that the church was supposed to be a different kind of place, including a different kind of place to work.”

Said Mr. Irvine, “Do we want to operate the church like Bay Street? I think it’s nonsense!”

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