Court says church membership rulings rest with higher authority
By Mary Frances Schjonberg, May 01, 2007
[Episcopal News Service] A South Carolina state judge has ruled that the minority of the members of the parish of All Saints, Waccamaw in Pawley's Island, South Carolina who remained loyal to the Episcopal Church do, in fact, constitute All Saints' Episcopal congregation.
The ruling arose from two different lawsuits, the earliest filed in 2000, over the issue of who owns the 50-acre campus that is also home to the breakaway Anglican Mission in America (AMiA). One of the cases arose in 2000 when the Diocese of South Carolina filed a public notice that All Saints, subject to applicable canon law, holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church as a whole. Attorneys for the diocese said that the notice was filed "out of concern that All Saints might attempt to convey its property" to the AMiA.
The parish then sued to have the diocesan notice removed from public records, claiming that legal title belonged entirely to the parish. The parish said they simply complied with diocesan canons as a "matter of courtesy."
A majority of the All Saints' congregation voted in late 2003 to amend the parish's certificate of incorporation to omit references to the Episcopal Church and then to separate from the Episcopal Church.
In December 2003, then-diocesan Bishop Edward L. Salmon Jr. put the parish under his direct supervision, and helped it to organize a new vestry. The Episcopal vestry then filed the second lawsuit, asking the court to recognize them as the proper representatives of All Saints parish, entitled to possession of All Saints' name and property.
In his ruling, Cooper noted that the cases involve a mixture of civil and ecclesiastical law.
"Civil law issue depends on an ecclesiastical question: which of two church factions should be recognized as the 'communicants' who, under the parish's constitution, make up the voting members of the church and are therefore entitled to choose its officers?" Cooper wrote.
The judge said "that quintessentially religious question is left up to the church authorities."
In the case of a denomination structured as a "hierarchical church," as is the Episcopal Church, Cooper ruled, membership questions are answered by higher church authorities, not the local congregation.
Noting that denominations such as the Episcopal Church "generally disapprove of their component churches being wrested away and reassigned to other ecclesiastical bodies," Cooper wrote that "to transform a group of Episcopal communicants into communicants of another church (here a parish of the Church of Rwanda) [by amending the local church's corporate charter] would be contrary to the religious doctrine of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese."
The judge said that it would constitute a fraud on the All Saints members who joined the parish and contributed to it based on the understanding that the parish was part of the Episcopal Church. "Long-standing communicants of that church would be faced with the choice either of forsaking their membership in the Diocese and the Episcopal Church and transferring elsewhere, or else be reduced to the status of visitors in a church in which they were previously entitled to vote and run for office," Cooper wrote.
He also noted that earlier South Carolina case law has recognized that "the voluntary act of joining a hierarchical denomination subjects the local church to the rules and regulations of the denomination."
Specifically Cooper ordered the former vestry members to stop holding themselves out as the officers of All Saints and using the name "All Saints Parish, Waccamaw," directed the South Carolina secretary of state to cancel the amendments made to the parish's certificate of incorporation, and agreed to eject the breakaway members from the property titled in the parish's name.
-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.