By Hilary White

VANCOUVER, November 27, 2009 ( – A group of parishioners in British Columbia who were seeking independence from the mainstream Anglican Church over its anti-Christian trends, have been told by the courts that their church buildings belong to the Anglican diocese of New Westminster.

Mr. Justice Stephen Kelleher of the British Columbia Supreme Court issued a mixed decision saying that four parishes in the Vancouver area may not keep their buildings if they remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC).

Nevertheless, the court ruled, the bishop of New Westminster also does not have the right under civil or canon law to fire the trustees of the parishes. The two sides, he said, are going to have to work out their difficulties outside the courts.

The move by the parishes to secede from the ACoC came in response to a decision in 2002 by the Anglican bishop of New Westminster Michael Ingham to force all parishes to begin same-sex “blessing” ceremonies, a move that was contrary to international agreements made by the ACoC at the time. Ingham's decision was blasted by then-Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who called it, a “departure from the main thrust of Anglican moral tradition.”

The parishes went to court in 2008 asking for clarification of the trustees' responsibilities in light of what they called the hostile action taken by the Diocese of New Westminster. Bishop Ingham threatened to fire and replace the trustees and take control of two of the churches' properties and bank accounts.

The bishop issued a statement in response to the court ruling saying that he will be removing the clergy of the four parishes and replacing them with others who will cooperate with him.

“I intend to invite these congregations to remain in the buildings where they worship and to move forward together with us in the Diocese as one people under God,” he said. “I intend to appoint new clergy who will respect and continue the worshipping style of the congregations, who will also work cooperatively with me and the Diocese.”

The four parishes in question, including the historic St. John's Shaughnessy, had voted in 2008 to disassociate with the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) and join the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), a recently recognized separate diocese in the Worldwide Anglican Communion affiliated with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.

A spokesman for the ANiC said the 98 page decision is “very complex” and the group's lawyers would have to take time to study it before making any decision on an appeal.

Cheryl Chang, legal advisor to the ANiC, said, “It is a great concern to hear that a majority can redefine and change the doctrine of the church and that those who wish to remain faithful to the church's teaching must change their beliefs or sacrifice their buildings.

“At the end of the day, if forced to choose, we will have to choose our faith over our buildings.”

Justice Kelleher ruled that Bishop Ingham did not have legal or canonical authority to terminate and replace the trustees, but said that the trustees must exercise their authority “in relation to the parish properties in accordance with the Act, as well as the constitution, canons, rules and regulations of the diocese.”

He said that with this understood, he would “leave it to the parties to arrive at a workable solution” to the larger difficulties.

Regarding these issues, Kelleher did not rule directly, but gave his opinion that “the parish properties are held on trust for Anglican ministry as defined by the [Anglican Church of Canada].”

But it is precisely the interpretation of the meaning of “Anglican ministry” that is at the centre of the dispute, with critics, including the ANiC, saying that the Anglican Church of Canada together with most of the historic Anglican churches in the developed world, have abandoned many of the classical tenets of the Christian religion.

This decision comes in the wider context of the ongoing disintegration of Anglicanism around the world over issues of sexual morality and secularization, a situation that is likely to continue to create legal confusion over ownership of properties in the US and elsewhere.

Frequently called “dissident Anglicans” by the secular press, the ANiC and many other “conservative” or “traditionalist” Anglican groups have refused to follow the movement of the mainstream of Anglicanism to acceptance of homosexuality and the rejection of biblical authority. Such groups now form a complex network of jurisdictions within Anglicanism with parishes and whole dioceses leaving the Anglican jurisdictions of their local areas and seeking affiliation and oversight with others of like mind.

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