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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Anglican Church of Canada has warned conservative members who split with the Canadian church in protest against the blessing of same-sex unions, that they will lose their church buildings and church funds.
"Individuals who choose to leave the church over contentious issues cannot take property or other assets with them," Archbishop Fred Hiltz wrote his bishops this week, in a letter the church published in a news release on Friday.
Hiltz's remarks come as the Canadian denomination's largest congregation, St. John's Shaughnessy in Vancouver, voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to leave and put itself under the authority of conservative Anglican churches in South America.
Other rebel congregations, in Ottawa and elsewhere, are considering similar moves, echoing a battle being fought across the worldwide Anglican Church over homosexuality.
Hiltz's warning shot foreshadowed the sort of court battles being fought in the United States between conservative congregations and the liberal Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Church.
Archbishop Hiltz made it clear in his letter he is prepared to take legal action. "My hope is that no parish will take action that would compel parish or diocesan leaders to resolve property disputes in the civil courts," he wrote.
St. John's Shaughnessy believes it has strong legal arguments to stay in its 75-year-old building -- it was independently incorporated and built with local members' funds -- and it has marshaled a C$1 million ($1 million) fund to fight in court if necessary.
"We would defend the building. We would continue our services. I suppose if we couldn't get into the building, we would hold our services out on the grass or something like that," St. John's Shaughnessy spokeswoman Lesley Bentley said.
The local bishop, Michael Ingham, has changed the locks of other churches that left after he started authorizing the blessing of same-sex unions in 2002.
Bentley said it would be difficult for Ingham to try to shut out the 1,000 people that attend services and Sunday school at her congregation each week.
One of the problems facing the Anglican Church of Canada is that its finances have been dwindling along with attendance, so it has an incentive to try to keep valuable property in the fold.
The issue of homosexuality -- from same-sex marriages to the ordination of a gay bishop -- threatens to tear the Anglican Church apart, with the mainline Canadian and U.S. branches largely arrayed against more conservative elements in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
Same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, but religious organizations are not required to perform the ceremonies.
There are about 800,000 registered Anglicans in the country.
The leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said in January he could not sanction, but he also could not block, conservative congregations leaving their national churches and joining foreign units.
Hiltz said in his letter it was unnecessary to follow this route.
St. John's Shaughnessy spokeswoman Bentley said the dispute went beyond the issue of homosexuality. She said Bishop Ingham questioned scriptural authority and whether Jesus was the only way to God, an idea St. John's is committed to upholding.
Editing by Rob Wilson