The trial before BC Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kelleher over the lawsuit brought by members of four dissident congregations against the Diocese of New Westminster began today (May 25) in Vancouver.

Those bringing the suit, 22 leaders in the four congregations, including three former diocesan priests, have left the Anglican Church of Canada, but want to keep their parish buildings, which the Diocese of New Westminster says it owns.

In court the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Geoff Cowper, QC, took the morning on his opening statement. The crux of the dissident’s position is that, as church leaders, they hold the properties pursuant to a trust for “historical, orthodox Anglican doctrine and practice.”

Cowper argued that same-sex blessings, begun in the diocese in 2003, were a violation of the trust they hold. They also can’t live with the vote of the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod in 2007 that blessings were not in conflict with its “core doctrine.”

The diocese’s lawyer, George Macintosh, QC, will get to present the diocese’s arguments at the beginning of next week (June 1), but in a preliminary session he said that the Anglican Church of Canada’s “sophisticated governance structure supersedes any trust.”

Much of Cowper’s argument centred on the “Solemn Declaration,” a document adopted by the Canadian Church’s founding first synod in 1893, which the lawyer called “the DNA of the Anglican Church of Canada. It states that the Canadian Church is to be “in full communion with the Church of England throughout the world.”

“It was central to its identity that it would remain in full communion with the Anglican Communion throughout the world,” said Cowper.

During the afternoon, two of the dissidents’ witnesses took the stand. Professor John Stackhouse of Regent College and was asked questions about Anglican vocabulary and history.

Stackhouse said that while one definition of orthodoxy is “the Christianity I like,” the dispute before the court was “really unprecedented.” It was very complicated, covering issue of governance, doctrine, and liturgical form, and affected much of the Anglican Communion. He also said that the Solemn Declaration was very important to the Canadian Church, and had been printed in all editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

Stackhouse was appearing as a neutral expert witness, but the diocese’s lawyer however questioned his objectivity by introducing a web blog that Stackhouse agreed he had written. It stated that Bishop Michael Ingham, bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, was “heretic and schismatic” and wrote about “churches that resist Ingham’s crypto-Hinduism.”

On the stand the professor said that he had written the blog but only used “strictly descriptive terms.”

The first day’s session ended with the testimony of Donald Harvey, retired bishop of Eastern Newfoundland, who resigned from the Anglican Church of Canada and announced he had become a bishop under Archbishop Gregory Venables, Primate of the Southern Cone in South America.

Harvey, who described himself as a “charismatic Anglo-Catholic” said that over time he had changed his mind on some issues, like the remarriage of divorced Anglicans, and the ordination of female priests. However he has not changed his mind regarding the blessing of gay and lesbian couples.

Under cross examination, Harvey agreed the group of Anglicans who accept him as a bishop, the Anglican Network (ANiC) in Canada, operates as a diocese of the Southern Cone. He agreed this meant there were dioceses within the Anglican Communion with overlapping territory, and this had never happened before.

“But we have not left the Church,” he insisted. “The Church divided.”

He agreed the ANiC plans to join with dissidents in the United States to form a new Anglican province, the Anglican Church in North America, and seek recognition from other members of the Anglican Communion.

“It’s unprecedented in the world wide Anglican Community to have Provinces in the same place?” asked Macintosh. Harvey agreed.

The sessions at the courthouse were well attended, with 60 spectators seated and another 20 standing. Justice Kelleher said that larger courtrooms in Vancouver were unavailable, but that he would try to arrange for a video feed to another room so that all could be seated.

He also praised the lawyers for working together and gathering most of the evidence for the case in affidavits (sworn statements). The trial will last three week, but that is much shorter than if all the evidence were given in court. “They deserve a great deal of credit” for expediting the case, the judge said of the lawyers.