St. John’s Shaughnessy is one of four parishes in British Columbia that have quit the Anglican Church in Canada. Usually, the word “dissident” is associated with liberals, while conservatives uphold obedience to the hierarchy of bishops, archbishops, etc. In this case, however, the hierarchy has approved blessing same-sex unions in Anglican churches.
Naturally, those who disagree have chosen to leave, seeking a church home where they can be of one accord that same-sex unions are NOT to be blessed in church. Meantime, it is the liberals who insist that duly constituted authority must be obeyed. The question which inevitably ends up in court is, who controls the church property.
English law is very different from American law, because the Constitution of the United States of America has the most ironclad provisions in the world forbidding establishment of religion, and barring the government from “probibiting the free exercise thereof.” American courts will not examine matters of faith or doctrine, or make any ruling on what is accepted doctrine. But in British law, which by and large applies in Canada, the Anglican Church is THE “established church.”
In the Colorado case of Bryce v. St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, an Episcopalian church was sued for discrimination and sexual harassment after a series of discussions concerning a youth minister’s union with a another woman, a minister at a UCC church. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals cited “a long line of Supreme Court cases that affirm the fundamental right of churches to `decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine’.” The suit was dismissed.
British courts have been known to indulge in detailed inquiries as to what is the true doctrine, even of a dissenting or nonconforming church (pretty much any Protestant denomination that is not Anglican), to render a decision. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that federal and state courts must defer to the highest body within a church on any internal church dispute.
In France, church property is often owned by a municipality, even though the state is militantly secular. But the Tenth Circuit referred to aline of cases beginning with “Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 20 L.Ed. 666 (1871), in which the Court declined to intervene in a property dispute between two factions of a church. The Court found that secular courts are bound by the decision of the highest church judicatory in internal matters of faith or ecclesiastical rule.”
In the U.S., if a church has a congregational form of government, then indeed the property belongs to the local congregation, which can secede and take the property with it by majority vote. If the church is Methodist, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic, title is held by the bishop or by the church as a whole. Individuals can of course leave the church, but they can’t take the property with them. In a Presbyterian Church, there are no bishops, but by church doctrine it is the presbytery, not the local congregation, that holds title.
What courts will not do is parse what the church’s doctrine is, or should be, or was, or will be, on homosexuality, the nature of the Eucharist, the Athanasian vs. the Arian vs. the Monophysite creed, or any other spiritual matter. It is simply none of the judiciary’s business.