A House Divided

September 2, 2008

On a Sunday morning earlier this year, hundreds of Anglicans pour through the doors of St. John’s Shaughnessy Church. The stately grey building at the corner of Granville and Nanton is home to a well-heeled and diverse congregation: parents with a clutch of teenage sons, elderly women in wheelchairs, youthful couples. Sitting near the front with her husband is soft-spoken, 72-year-old Gail Stevenson, who has attended the church her whole life. Closer to the back, sitting all by himself, is 46-year-old Steve Schuh. Many of the parishioners sit in the same pew week after week—pews that may soon be pulled out from under them.

“ I need to say,” the rector of St. John’s, Reverend David Short, sermonizes in his Australian accent, “that some of us are anxious about our buildings right now. It seems our diocese wants to take them away from us. In the last weeks, there are congregations that, through court decisions, have been made to move out.” Indeed, in early June, an Anglican parish in Victoria had its building taken away after declaring its independence from the local diocese. “But here is the question for us this morning,” Short goes on, standing at the wooden pulpit. “Is St. John’s the building? Or is it you, the people?”

The question is not merely philosophical. The Anglican church’s growing acceptance of gay marriage is dividing congregations worldwide along liberal/conservative fault lines, and the physical churches are caught in the schism. In Vancouver alone, more than $20 million in property is at stake in the fight between the Diocese of New Westminster and its rebellious conservative congregations.

St. John’s Shaughnessy, one of four Vancouver parishes that have broken with the diocese over gay unions, occupies the epicentre of this country’s Anglican crisis: it is the largest, wealthiest Anglican parish in Canada, and it includes famed clergymen and high-profile parishioners—like locals MPs and former mayor Phillip Owen—who donate nearly $2 million to the church annually. St. John’s has abandoned the Anglican Church of Canada to join a parallel but distinctly more conservative organization of 18 churches: the Anglican Network in Canada, or ANiC.

These conservatives are welcome to leave the Anglican Church of Canada, New Westminster bishop Michael Ingham has said, but they should not expect to take the property with them. To Ingham and his chancellor—his legal counsel—the dispute is a simple property disagreement. But the conservatives frame it differently. According to Cheryl Chang, a member of St. John’s and ANiC’s chancellor, it is the congregation—not the diocese—that is upholding historical Anglican doctrine (i.e., treating homosexuality as a sin) and thus is deserving of the property trust. This specific fight may be over a piece of real estate in Shaughnessy, but its root causes, according to the conservatives, are written in the heavens.

“ In the end, brothers and sisters,” Reverend Short’s sermon concludes, “that is what it is all about. Whether we will stand on the foundation made for us in Scriptures. Whether we will trust Christ.” The conservatives describe it as a theological divorce. And, as in many divorces, the biggest fight is over who gets the house.

THE FIRST SERVICE of the future St. John’s was held in a small wooden building in the early 1920s, attracting perhaps a dozen people each week—as many as 50 at Easter. The church grew, and in 1925 a larger building was erected, with the then-bishop of New Westminster delivering its first service to a congregation of 200. The numbers climbed. A still-larger building with a capacity of over 500—the one being fought over today—was dedicated in 1950. The $200,000 construction costs were raised by the parish.

But things changed in December 1978, when Harry Robinson walked through the door. Attendance was stagnant and money short, with the church “running on bingo,” as Robinson puts it. So the newly hired rector, with his charisma and evangelical background, rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

Now retired and living on Mayne Island, Robinson says he would have been described 30 years ago as a “low churchman,” meaning he ignored Anglican orthodoxy and emphasized biblical teachings. He didn’t impress the old-school parishioners. A portion of the congregation—elder members, mostly—began to trickle out. Within a month of his arrival, the choir and organist had quit.

But each week, more and more people packed the pews, many of them university students. By 1981, weekly attendance had grown from 70 to more than 300. Robinson oversaw a $1.2-million renovation before retiring in 1992. Now his children attend the church, and he still cuts a fatherlike figure at St. John’s. He was, after all, the one who defined and instilled the conservative sensibility behind the current schism.

Robinson supports St. John’s decision to split from the diocese but remain Anglican. The conservative/liberal distinction seems to him as binary as good and evil: “It’s the difference between going to church and asking God what you did wrong,” he says, “and telling God what He’s done wrong and bringing Him up to date.” In a sermon this summer, Reverend Jim Salladin offered thanks that God had given St. John’s the gift of Harry Robinson.

In the 30 years since Robinson gave his first sermon, St. John’s has grown to include more than 800 parishioners. And in 2007, an 80-member affiliate church (also called St. John’s, and also a member of ANiC) was established in Richmond.

Though the New West diocese, according to Bishop Ingham, supported St. John’s financially in the 1920s, that relationship has since been reversed. St. John’s sent $139,000 to the diocese in 2001 alone, and any money needed for church improvements and maintenance is raised by the congregation.

At 72, Gail Stevenson has watched the entire curious evolution of St. John’s. When she was five, she was baptized in the church’s old low-roofed plaster-and-wood house. A few years later, she was part of the first class confirmed—boys in blazers, girls in white dresses and stockings—in the current building. She has sat in a pew in the same part of St. John’s for most of her life. Her mother’s, father’s and sister-in-law’s ashes were scattered on the property. The corner of Granville and Nanton she considers “holy ground.”

Stevenson gets calls at home from distressed congregants, to whom she offers advice and prayers. If, one day, the congregation loses the building, she plans to help her fellow churchgoers cope. “When your moments—your weddings, your funerals—are all contained within the walls of a building, you can easily become rooted to it,” she explains, a Bible resting in her lap. “It’s extremely hard to walk away.” Yet she knows that day may come. In which case the candleholders, chalices, and sculptures donated by generations of parishioners, the stained-glass window made from shards retrieved from Canterbury, the wooden pews warmed for decades by the same families—everything will be left behind. “We will move on,” she says, “but at a huge cost.”

The 1.6 acres St. John’s sits on, plus two adjacent rectories, are worth about $13 million. As for the church itself, a developer wouldn’t hesitate to knock it down, says Murphy Costello, who’s spent more than 25 years with MacDonald Realty and served on the city’s variance board for nine years. “The buildings are perfectly usable for what they are,” he says, “but the value is in the land for development, so the buildings are redundant.” And, he says, most neighbours would prefer houses—they attract less street traffic.

The property is limited by zoning regulations to single-family homes—meaning seven 9,000-square-foot lots worth, on average, $1.5 million each. The three other churches that have left the Diocese of New Westminster are worth, collectively, over $8 million: St Matthew’s, in Abbotsford, is worth $500,000; the Church of the Good Shepherd, at 19th and Prince Albert, is worth just under $1 million; and St. Matthias, at 49th and Oak, is worth more than $7 million. When the diocese decided to bless same-sex marriages in 2002—the first Anglican diocese in the world to do so—the eight parishes that walked out took 18 percent of the diocese’s revenue with them. Audited statements show that the diocese has sold some $3 million in property since then. According to Bishop Ingham, however, none of the four contended properties will be sold. The intention, rather, is to rebuild the congregations with other Canadian Anglicans. And he expects many St. John’s parishioners will “reassess” their vote if—or when—the diocese retakes the building.

CHERYL CHANG DOUBTS the diocese could bring in enough people, and money, to keep St. John’s open without closing other Anglican churches in the area. The diocese doesn’t use the abandoned churches for their intended purposes, she says, “they just close them or sell them. Their church is shrinking.” Ingham disagrees, describing the diocese as “financially strong,” and its congregation numbers stable.

The worldwide conservative Anglican movement is led by churches in the global south: Africa, South America, and Asia. The church’s expansion in the lower hemisphere is impressive: Nigeria alone contains 18 million of the Anglican church’s 80 million members worldwide. As old-guard western Anglican leaders have pushed the church to the left in recent years, newer Anglicans have reacted—and loudly. Earlier this year, hundreds of Anglicans from North America, Asia, and Africa gathered in Delta for ANiC’s inaugural national meeting: a two-day gathering titled Compelled by Christ’s Love. Between speeches at South Delta Baptist Church that encouraged attendees to spread the gospel, clergy and parishioners swapped horror stories of creeping liberalism in Anglican churches.

In attendance was the Most Reverend Gregory Venables, Primate of the Southern Cone, who lives in Buenos Aires and oversees Anglican churches from the Tropic of Capricorn to the tip of South America. Venables administers many of the dissident conservative North American parishes—including those of ANiC. A tall, bald Englishman, he opened the conference by speaking derisively of contemporary culture. “God has said there is no other gospel,” he intoned. “That is an offence to postmodern society, who say there is no creed except the creed that there is no creed.” Neither he nor the other speakers directly addressed the issue of homosexuality—the elephant in the room.

ANiC had chosen the right time to take this risk, Venables said—a point he reiterated two days later in a sermon at St. John’s. Anglicans are realizing they must begin anew, no matter the cost or the controversy. He compared the position of today’s conservatives to that of Christianity’s founding fathers. “They crucified Jesus because they didn’t like what He said and did, and they killed His followers,” he shouted. “What’s new?” Many heads at the conference nodded in agreement.

Cheryl Chang may be unusually prepared to play a role in this marital breakdown. She worked as a real-estate lawyer in Kerrisdale before moving to a downtown firm in 2000, where she switched to family law and mediation—giving her experience in both real estate and divided houses. In 2002, she began working with St. John’s, which she has attended since 1992. She now works exclusively with what she calls “churches suffering from persecution.”

“ Everything I’ve ever done,” Chang says, “seems to have been training for what I’m doing now.” She says ANiC is ready to fund a decade-long fight. The Globe and Mail reported in February that a group of anonymous donors had agreed to underwrite a million-dollar legal fund. The fight is just warming up: in June the diocese sent letters to the four dissident parishes, warning their clergy, whom the bishop had stripped of their clerical licences, to stop preaching—they were trespassing. Chang, the Anglican Journal reported, called the accusation ridiculous. “It is difficult,” she said, “to see how the diocese can claim to be an ‘owner’ or ‘landlord’ when they are not on the title to the property, do not control the corporation that holds the title, and never…used the property except with the permission of the parish corporation.” As of August, the diocese had not yet filed a lawsuit involving any of the Vancouver churches, and St. John’s parishioners and clergy were still in their building.

Who would the courts deem the owner of the property? The land title is listed under the Parish of St. John’s (Shaughnessy), but when the archbishop approved St. John’s incorporation in 1932, he did so under a provincial act that states that all parish property is held in trust for the diocese. Chang’s response is that the ANiC better represents the global Anglican church. “Regardless of who is on the title,” Chang counters, moving away from her argument in the Anglican Journal, “the property is held in trust for that body of Anglicans who are upholding the original doctrine of the church.”

For the dissenting conservatives, the precedents aren’t promising. In a case involving St. Mary’s, a rebellious parish in Victoria, the presiding B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled against ANiC, saying it had yet to establish its position as “true Anglicans.” And a ruling in Ontario in May ordered a joint-custody arrangement among three churches and the diocese, with the presiding justice noting that, while references were made to the religious trust, “I would prefer to leave interpretation of those documents to another audience.” Both these decisions were only preliminary, with final verdicts not expected for years.

IF ST. JOHN'S loses its legal battle, it could wind up like the congregation of St. Timothy’s, which, in June, celebrated its fourth year worshipping at the Lynn Valley Recreation Centre. One wet Sunday morning, the people’s warden, square-jawed and wide-framed Peter Haigh, arrived early to cart furniture from the storage room to the community hall. The room was noisy; parishioners unfolded stacks of brown plastic chairs (pews) while others set up the electronic keyboard (the organ). The altar, tables, and crosses are all hand-built out of plain wood. “On Sunday, it really becomes like a church,” Haigh remarks. “At any other time, the centre is full of sweaty bodies, people doing exercises.”

An hour later, the chairs were filled with the church’s 65 parishioners. About 20 of them used to worship at St. Martin’s, an Anglican church in North Vancouver. St. Martin’s 175-strong congregation had voted to leave the Diocese of New Westminster in 2004, but soon after, a representative from the bishop’s office stood up at the end of a Sunday service and announced the diocese was taking over. Parish leaders thought about fighting the decision but decided they couldn’t afford the legal bills.

The hall costs about $250 in rent for the morning—a fraction of what they spent maintaining St. Martin’s. Most parishioners volunteer for setup; there isn’t much room for the uninitiated at St. Timothy’s. Even Reverend Ken Bell helps out, standing on a chair to hang cloth over the windows before putting on his frayed robe. After the service, the furniture and equipment fit back into a 40-square-foot wooden box that slides into the storage room.

Five minutes down the road from the recreation centre is St. Martin’s itself. Haigh’s attachment to the church endures: his mother’s ashes were scattered in the memorial garden, and his father (who, like his son, moved to St. Timothy’s) paid $20,000 to have a rose window installed in the church to memorialize her. But the presence of the current congregation, now finished with their service and gathered in the community hall, is enough to make an old member of St. Martin’s feel like an outsider. About half of St. Martin’s congregation stayed on after the diocese took over, despite some of them originally having voted against it. Haigh says he understands these decisions but stands his ground. “We chose to do what we believe is the right thing to do,” he says. “It would be a hell of a lot more comfortable and easy to sidle up to the same old pew every week.”

At St. John’s in Shaughnessy, 96 percent of the congregation voted to leave the diocese. One of the 11 dissenters was Steve Schuh, head of the Vancouver chapter of Integrity, an advocacy group for gay Christians in the Anglican church, and probably the only openly gay man at St. John’s. Schuh, an evangelical Christian, finished a few credits short of a master’s from the Regent College theology school at UBC. He has glasses and short, greying hair, and blends into the conservative congregation around him. His knowledge of the Bible is extensive, and he argues clearly and cogently that it doesn’t condemn homosexuality.

Schuh is torn: he worships with the other parishioners at St. John’s, but he supports the liberal approach of the diocese. He sees the congregation as his family—albeit one that views his homosexuality as a sin. That conflict, he says, has made attending the church increasingly uncomfortable. Earlier this year, a older female churchgoer asked him bluntly: “Why are you still here?” Many parishioners want his voting membership revoked, saying he hasn’t contributed time, talent, or “financial resources” to their church.

Schuh knows of many parishioners who have left St. John’s in recent years; he says the congregation has shrunk by at least a few hundred people since the controversy over gay marriage began. St. John’s officials claim the numbers have remained steady, though one spokesman did acknowledge that “some who disagree with the church’s positions” have left, while new conservative members have joined—an echo, in a way, of the shifts in the late ’70s that occurred under Harry Robinson.

On a recent Sunday at St. John’s, Schuh walked down the aisle of the nave to the altar, where he knelt at the base of the 12-metre cross etched into the glass wall. While the choir sang from an alcove above, the priest—who, in the wake of the diocese’s decision to bless gay marriage, used the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as proof of homosexuality’s sin—broke off a piece of Communion bread and placed it in Schuh’s outstretched palm.

Cheryl Chang accuses Schuh of remaining at St. John’s to increase his media profile and to fight the congregation. Schuh says that at the heart of his decision to stay is a moral stubbornness, an unwillingness to be pushed out. He’s watched friends and colleagues leave voluntarily, but he stays put in his pew, six rows behind Gail Stevenson. If a church is its people, he thinks it should include him. “I believe what they’re doing is a misinterpretation of Scripture,” he says. “It’s my parish. I’m not going to get run out of it.”

When the service ended, Schuh turned toward the main entrance, on Granville, but hesitated when he saw the priest there, shaking hands with departing parishioners. He made instead for a side exit and walked out into the bright, chilly Sunday morning.

 

 

 

 

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.