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...What is particularly ironic about this case is that the diocese of South Carolina, who was taken to court by this AMiA congregation, is a Network diocese.
...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"...
A 2004 letter to this parish from Bp. Salmon of South Carolina is worth noting, especially this segment:
...The basic issues on the table are those of lawlessness and the stability of the Diocese itself. We have no theological issues with All Saints. If any parish in the Diocese can unilaterally decide to not be under the Canons, appoint vicars, do what they want to when they want to, our strength as a Diocese is soon destroyed. There is no authority, only individual choice...This sounds like something Bp. Lee of Virginia may want to lift and send on to the new Nigerian congregations.
In a related story, the Circuit Court of Duval County, Florida has granted the Diocese of Florida's motion for a summary judgment in favor of their claim of ownership of Church of the Redeemer in Jacksonville. As in the Pawley's Island case, the Florida court based their decision on the precedent set by previous church property disputes; the court will defer to the highest ecclesiastical authority of a hierarchal church.
With the exception of California (because, well, it's California), this is how we can anticipate most of the future court cases will go, including those scheduled to be heard in Virginia. Keep in mind that the argument anticipated to be used by some of those Virginia congregations, that they pre-date the formation of TEC, is considered by some to be based on inaccurate history.
UPDATE: Andrew Gerns has more on this topic, including this summation:
...The CANA strategy depends on proving that they are the rightful heirs of the tradition of the denomination, in other words that the Episcopal Church left the parishes not the other way round. It also hangs on the idea that a parish in a structure like ours can unilaterally change the public record of its incorporation, title, deed, etc., and finally that the fiduciary responsibilities of the clergy and lay leaders take second place to their notions of maintaining doctrine and practice. The South Carolina ruling rejects all three of these contentions...