Dispute gives rise to licensing, property questions

Dissenting clergy again asked intentions

What began as a disagreement over theology, sexuality and its biblical interpretation may end up as a dispute on stacks of legal-sized paper as the diocese of New Westminster asks dissident clergy a second time whether they are “in” or “out.”

If the clergy do not pledge their obedience to their bishop, their licences could be pulled.

Disputes over land and buildings are also looming on the horizon, since some of the parishes have cut off their funding to the diocese.

New Westminster Bishop Michael Ingham said in an interview that chancellor George Cadman has written to 12 clergy asking them to clarify “whether they remain under my jurisdiction and authority.” Priests pledge obedience to their bishop in their ordination vows.

It is the second time the diocese has sought clarification of the clergy’s intentions. Bishop Ingham wrote the 12 individually in June asking whether their withdrawal from the diocesan synod was an act of protest or a resignation.

If the clergy had resigned from the diocese, Bishop Ingham said, he would need to declare vacancies in those parishes affected. Clergy and members of parishes are free to leave the church at any time, he said, but the land and buildings are property of the diocese.

The clergy responded in a joint letter at the beginning of July that they still considered themselves “part of this diocese, but that relationship has been seriously strained by the passage” of the motion approving same-sex blessings.

That, said Mr. Cadman in his advice to the bishop, is not a response. “They’ve merely said they wish to be part of the diocese,” said Bishop Ingham. “It was highly ambiguous.”

The new deadline for clergy to respond – individually – is Friday, July 19.

Meanwhile, four parishes have withdrawn their financial support from the diocese and another four say they may do the same. The eight parishes involved (out of the diocese’s total of 79 parishes) account for nearly a quarter of the diocesan budget.

Mike Wellwood, business administrator of New Westminster, reports that since the June synod, three parishes have sent letters to the diocese advising that they would not be paying July’s monthly assessment. 

A fourth parish failed to send in its assessment for the month. In all four cases, Mr. Wellwood has sent letters stating that the diocese will not continue to run payroll for them – this, despite the fact that two of the three have sent the diocese funds in trust to cover their payroll. The cheques were returned to the parishes, which have both lay and clergy staff on the payroll.

Mr. Wellwood said he has informed the parishes that if they continue to withhold their assessments, any monies not in trust that are forwarded to the diocese will be applied first to their assessment; second, to any debts owing the diocese and third, to their payroll.

Mr. Wellwood declined to identify the parishes involved, but clergy have confirmed that two of the parishes are St. Simon’s and St. Martin in North Vancouver.

Rev. Ed Hird, incumbent of St. Simon’s, North Vancouver confirmed in early July that his church is withholding its July assessment and, he added, “My impression is that most of the eight ACiNW parishes in July are withholding their assessments.”

(ACiNW stands for the Anglican Communion in New Westminster, the name assumed by the group of eight parishes, including 12 clergy that walked out of their diocesan synod on June 15). Synod members had voted 63 per cent in favour of moving ahead with same-sex blessings.

Rev. Timothy Cooke, incumbent at St. Martin, said his parish also withheld its July assessment. The church, which has two full-time employees on the diocesan payroll, including him and a youth associate, is examining its options for paying staff, he said. It is also hoping to continue to support the work of the national church financially.

“We would like to find a mechanism whereby we can continue to send 34 per cent of the diocesan assessment to support the work of the General Synod,” said Mr. Cooke. The diocese forwards about a third of parish assessments to the national church to fund its work.

Mr. Cooke said his parish is awaiting response to questions raised by his group of clergy and parishes about whether the diocese is in contravention of any provincial and national church canons in moving ahead with blessing same-sex relationships.

“Our position is that one individual synod and one individual bishop does not have the authority to introduce same-sex blessings,” said Mr. Cooke. “A bishop has no more authority to introduce that than they could authorize a new Book of Common Prayer.”

Another large question mark in the diocese also happens to be New Westminster’s biggest parish.

One of the eight parishes where clergy and laypeople walked out of synod, St. John’s, Shaughnessy, may be one of the wealthiest parishes in the Canadian church, Mr. Wellwood acknowledged.

Located in an affluent area of Vancouver, the parish accounts for 12 per cent of the diocesan budget.

A member of St. John’s staff would not discuss the church’s financial situation. “I spoke with our treasurer,” said Ruth Matheson, “and his response is this is a private matter between St. John’s and the diocese and should not be dealt with in the public press.”

The parish is not scheduled to hold its vestry meeting to decide its future until the fall, though members of St. John’s have said in the past that they already have legal advice saying that they own their property.

While there has been talk that the eight parishes might secede from the diocese and try to retain their buildings and properties, the diocese’s position is that it owns parish properties and buildings.

The diocese was formed by the British Columbia legislature’s act of incorporation of 1893 and parishes are subunits of the diocese, said Mr. Wellwood. The diocesan chancellor has also prepared a written opinion on what happens to the property of parishes that wish to leave the Anglican Church of Canada. That opinion reads, in part, “Parishes have no separate corporate status except as part of the diocese … Property can only be transferred or sold with the approval from diocesan council and the bishop.”


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