Breaking Up is Hard to Do

It’s one thing to have a grand liturgy in a rented space. But, according to a report in the Post and Courier of Charleston, SC, it is quite another thing to take the property with you.

In his article, Post and Courier reporter Adam Parker contextualizes the installation Saturday of Bishop Martyn Minns as Missionary Bishop of the Church of Nigeria. He writes today that:

Efforts to achieve realignment, however, have been complicated by church property disputes. A recent court ruling concerning All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, on Pawley’s Island favored the Episcopal Church’s position that individuals can elect to leave the church but parishes cannot.

In the ruling, S.C. Court of Common Pleas Judge W. Thomas Cooper said that the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical structure, and that its former vestry members are not officers of All Saints Parish, which belongs to those who remained part of the U.S. church.

But, virtually ensuring future legal challenges, he also noted the mixture of civil and ecclesiastical law: “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 in the ruling.

“That quintessentially religious question is left up to the church authorities.”

The judge ordered that the amendments made to the parish’s certificate of incorporation, amendments meant to disassociate the parish from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina, are to be canceled, and he said members of the breakaway parish did not have a legal right to use the property.

According the text of the actual ruling, a parish can neither unilaterally change their corporate amendments to become an independent, congregational church from a hierarchical church nor can they unilaterally transfer themselves to another hierarchical church without both violating the first amendment rights of the Episcopal Church or without constituting a fraud towards the members who are communicants of the church.

In addition, the judge wrote that the definition of a communicant is set out by the Episcopal Church not the parish. As soon as the members declared themselves members of another denomination, in this case the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA) via the Church of Rwanda, they ceased to be communicants in the Episcopal Church and their vote to leave was invalid.

Readers wishing to more fully understand the strategic ins and outs should read the Report of the House of Bishops’ Task Force on Property Disputes which has just become available over at Daily Episcopalian.

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