St. John’s Shaughnessy, a large Vancouver parish church, on Feb. 13 voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada and affiliate with a South American Anglican church, in an ongoing dispute over Christian fundamentals, including the denomination’s more-liberal stance on homosexuality.
It is the first active Canadian Anglican church to vote for separation since the Province of the Southern Cone (which covers the southern part of South America) last November offered to accept Canadian churches at odds with their bishops or national church. In the last four months, several small congregations that had roots in the Anglican church but were not members, joined the Southern Cone, along with two retired bishops and several retired clergy.
The vote at St. John’s annual vestry, or general meeting, was 475 in favor of separation, or 96 per cent, 11 against and 9 absentions. The meeting was closed to the public.
“The mood was very serious, very sober. There was no sense of elation. But there was the firm conviction that we had no other alternative if we wanted to maintain our faith,” said Lesley Bentley, a lay member of St. John’s acting as spokesperson for the church. Over the last 15 years, she said, St. John’s has disagreed with diocesan bishop Michael Ingham over a number of faith issues, culminating in the diocese’s 2002 decision to allow blessing ceremonies for gay couples.
“He preached against the bodily resurrection of Christ. His book, Mansions of the Spirit, doesn’t support the uniqueness of Christ, which is a core element of our faith. He reads Scripture in a way we don’t read Scripture. At this point, it’s two different religions,” said Ms. Bentley. Blessing same-sex unions, she said, is “contrary to Scripture.” St. John’s, which is one of the largest parishes in the Canadian church, has withheld its annual diocesan assessment since 2002.
Steve Schuh, who identified himself as a gay member of St. John’s who voted against the motion, said in a telephone interview that “the church certainly includes gay and lesbian people and there is nothing in the Bible that excludes gay and lesbian people from the love of God. The Bible doesn’t talk about loving and committed same-sex unions. It’s terribly sad that (conservatives) have elevated this issue to the level of the (Christian) creeds.”
He also noted that the Anglican Church of Canada’s national governing body, General Synod, last summer stated that the blessing of same-sex unions is not a matter of core doctrine.
Speaking for Bishop Ingham, who was out of town, Dean Peter Elliott said that the diocese is “saddened” by St. John’s decision. However, he said, the parish’s clergy cannot serve in two jurisdictions and would be expected to voluntarily relinquish their orders in the Anglican Church of Canada.
Rev. David Short, in an interview with the Anglican Journal, declined to comment on whether he would take that step. He said that it is St. John’s view that “there is no legal and canonical reason why the diocese shouldn’t accept this form of oversight. This is a solution that will work.” The congregation does not intend to vacate its buildings and does not wish to go to court, he said.
The move to come under the jurisdiction of a foreign church may result in a civil court dispute, since both Bishop Ingham and the primate (national archbishop), Fred Hiltz, recently told parishes they may not legally leave the church and take their buildings and property with them.
“In our Anglican tradition, individuals who choose to leave the church over contentious issues cannot take property and other assets with them. My hope is that no parish will take action that would compel parish or diocesan leaders to resolve property disputes in the civil courts. Such actions would not only be costly in terms of financial resources but also destructive of the witness of the church in the world,” Archbishop Hiltz wrote in a letter dated Feb. 13 that was posted on the diocesan Web site, www.vancouver.anglican.ca.
Ms. Bentley said St. John’s legal advisers have said the church building belongs to the parish, not to the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster. “Our aim is not to fight over the building. We hope to negotiate an amicable solution with (Bishop Ingham). He has it in his power to allow us to stay. He could be gracious,” she said.
“People have pledged money to defend the building. We are willing to go to court to defend the building and if a court said it is not ours, we would vacate it,” she said.
Dioceses are created by provincial legislatures, said Dean Elliott and the parish continues to exist as part of the diocese “to provide a local expression of worship and mission of the Anglican Church of Canada.” Seeking a different jurisdiction is similar to an Ontario town seeking to be part of Manitoba, he said.
The motion approved by St. John’s said the parish “hereby requests on an emergency and pastoral basis, the episcopal oversight of Bishop Donald Harvey, under the primatial oversight of Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Province of the Southern Cone.” Bishop Harvey is a retired Canadian bishop who is moderator of the Anglican Network in Canada, a group of parishes that are considering leaving the Canadian church. St. John’s is a member of the network and said membership would “facilitate the provision of (Bishop Harvey and Archbishop Venables’) oversight.”
Bishop Ingham was out of town and could not be reached for comment. In his letter, dated Feb. 6, he said that, “no parish or congregation in the diocese of New Westminster has any legal existence except as part of the diocese, and any attempt by any person to remove a parish from the jurisdiction of the bishop and synod (governing body) would be schismatic (promoting a split in the church).”
The clergy, wardens, and trustees have a “fiduciary responsibility” – the responsibility of a trustee – “to preserve and protect the assets of the church within the diocese of New Westminster and the Anglican Church of Canada.”
Bishop Ingham warned clergy they could be dismissed. “Any attempt to betray that trust through schismatic action is a ground for immediate termination of license or removal from office, and may well subject those same individuals to civil proceedings also,” he wrote.
Archbishop Hiltz, in his letter, reiterated his previously-stated view that actions seeking alternate jurisdiction are unnecessary, noting that Canadian Anglican bishops have approved a plan for “shared episcopal ministry,” under which a diocesan bishop may ask another Canadian bishop to minister to disaffected congregations.
However, conservative congregations in the network have said they want visiting conservative bishops to have full jurisdiction, in other words, the power to employ clergy, and Canada’s bishops have rejected that idea.
Ms. Bentley said Bishop Ingham has rejected proposals by St. John’s to hire conservative clergy. “We are left with Bishop Ingham having hiring authority within the parish,” she said.
St. John’s, established in 1932 in the Shaughnessy neighborhood of Vancouver, is one of the most affluent congregations in the Canadian church, with an annual budget of about $1.7 million and membership of more than 1,000.