Stuart Laidlaw, religion reporter for the Toronto Star, remembers how Ignatius of Antioch advised early Christians to gather around no other communion table except with their bishop. Ignatius wrote at the end of the first and early second century. Now some congregations in Canada want to strike out on their own. What would Ignatius do?

On his way to Rome to be executed for spreading Christianity, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters to leaders of a still-small church emerging around the ideas of Jesus Christ, crucified only decades before.

His letters spelled out what it meant to be Christian and formed the basis of the Catholic Church and, later, the Anglican Church. too. This week, some 1,900 years later, Ignatius’s words are echoing in a legal battle over church property.

At issue is what it means to be an Anglican; at stake is who can claim title to three conservative churches that have voted to break away from the Anglican Church of Canada in a dispute essentially over the blessing of same-sex marriages.

For the Anglican Church of Canada, Ignatius’s emphasis on loyalty to the local bishop as a defining characteristic of church membership is as important today as it was in the 2nd Century.

“He pushes hard for unity centred around the bishop,” Anglican canon law expert Rev. Alan Perry says.

“Ignatius says to the people not to gather at another table for the Eucharist, but gather with your bishop as a symbol of unity.”

Yet some self-professed conservative Canadian congregations are implicitly taking issue with Ignatius, leaving the mother church and hoping to take parish property with them.

In all, there are 10 breakaway churches, members of the Anglican Network in Canada, who say the national church has become too liberal and can no longer call itself truly Anglican because it doesn’t follow the tenets of the faith found in the church’s historic Book of Common Prayer.

“The Canadian church doesn’t want to go along with the faith. They want to set their own rules and their own faith,” says Cheryl Chang, lawyer for the Network. “They want us to leave the buildings and say we are no longer Anglican.”

Tension among Anglican factions spilled over into a Hamilton courtroom yesterday. A court rejected an attempt by the Anglican Diocese of Niagara to seek joint custody of churches run by two breakaway southwestern Ontario parishes.

In Ignatius’s time, the fledgling church was also struggling to survive as the apostles died off and a new generation of leaders took their place, says Perry, a Montreal priest. In response, the story goes, Ignatius proposed the office of bishop as a way to organize the church after the apostles, with membership in the church contingent on loyalty to the local bishop.

That principle holds to this day, says Perry.

“The bishops have pretty much always been understood to be the successors to the apostles.”

To be Anglican, then, requires being a member of the national church and loyal to its bishops. As such, Perry says, the 10 congregations in Ontario and British Columbia that have broken ties with the Anglican Church of Canada are no longer Anglican.

“There is no such thing as an Anglican church which isn’t part of a diocese,” Perry says.

For breakaway Anglicans, however, it’s not so simple.

Rev. James Packer, a leading conservative Anglican theologian, says the principle of episcopal loyalty is generally sound, but tends to fall apart when congregations find themselves at odds with their local bishop.

” In both Vancouver and Niagara, where the majority of congregations that have left the national church are located, a handful of parishes that are among the most conservative in the country find themselves headed by very liberal local bishops, he says

In such a situation, Packer says, the strict geographic definition of Anglicanism doesn’t work, and may have outlived its usefulness.

While he agrees that faithfulness to the bishop is a key component of being Anglican, Packer questions why it has to be the local bishop.

The Toronto Globe and Mail reports:

The Anglican Diocese of Niagara for the first time has been denied access to two of its local churches – albeit temporarily – after a growing divide crept into an Ontario courtroom yesterday.

An Ontario Superior Court judge rejected a bid by the diocese to hold two separate services this Sunday and next at St. George’s Anglican Church in Lowville, Ont., and St. Hilda’s Anglican Church in Oakville, Ont., until the courts decide who owns the properties.

Yesterday’s ruling that effectively gives the congregations exclusive use of their church facilities will be in place until the parishes and diocese return to court later this month for a hearing on a longer-term arrangement for Sunday services. The bigger legal issue of who owns the properties will likely take some time to be sorted out.

The two congregations are among a growing number of parishes across the country that have voted to break ranks with the Anglican Church of Canada in a dispute over theological issues that include the blessing of same-sex unions, which they oppose. So far, 15 parishes have left the national church and sought to place themselves under the authority of a conservative South American archbishop, a move that could lead to more legal battles over church buildings, which some congregations want to retain.

A statement from the Diocese of Niagara synod negotiating team says:

From Tuesday to Thursday morning, we entered into good faith negotiations to work out a sharing agreement that would have allowed the breakaway congregations and the diocesan worshiping community to worship on Sundays, to use the buildings at different times during the week, and to split the costs of running the parishes. We sought a fair interim solution until such time as the larger issue of the ownership of the facilities was resolved. It was a generous compromise that sought a time of reasonable accommodation, where both the breakaway congregations, and the faithful diocesan communities, could share the facilities for their respective missions. We were trying to build on the agreement of the previous week in which we agreed to work on four things, joint administration of the parishes, full disclosure of parish assets, a non disparagement agreement and shared services in the buildings at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. for diocesan and network respectively. From our point of view, this arrangement of services had worked reasonably well last Sunday.

Any sharing agreement that involves both parties having access to the buildings for services on Sunday, at different times, has been categorically rejected by the Network. Instead they seek an indefinite period during which time they continue with business as usual and we do nothing to inconvenience their sole occupancy of our church buildings. It feels like we are not really negotiating with our former brothers and sisters, with whom we may be able to find common ground, but with The Anglican Network in Canada. This organization is not only a few congregations who seek to break with the Anglican Church of Canada; it is also an organization that has a self proclaimed mission, to create a new “diocese” and religious organization in Canada with charitable tax status. This stated mission, the fact that the Network claims to have a one million dollar defence fund, and the fact that they are claiming properties belonging to legitimate dioceses within the Anglican Church of Canada, seem to be factors that make a reasonable compromise impossible.

Today Charlie Masters, listed by the Network as a “key resource”, is quoted as saying that, “they would rather abandon the buildings than share with the diocese”. This attitude that somehow our presence, even at a different time, would taint or distress them, is troubling. In all our efforts we have been mindful of those who have been left orphaned by this takeover of their churches, who do not agree with this course of action, and our wider diocesan family who rightly expect us to be good stewards of all the resources of our Diocesan Church.

Toronto Star: At core of Anglican conflict, a 1,900-year-old tradition

Toronto Globe and Mail: Breakaway Anglicans make gain

Diocese of Niagara: Message to the Clergy and People of the Diocese from the Synod Negotiating Team February 29, 2008.

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