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Christ Church (Photo courtesy The New York Public Library)

Bricks and mortar

Legal battles make concrete what's abstract in Scripture

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

Maybe I've lived too long in one or another of the 13 original colonies, but when I think of the old downtown churches I picture the lifeless hands of elderly greeters, liturgy murmured from a cold pew, and bingo. The word vibrant does not come to mind.

But on a warm winter Sunday last month in downtown Savannah, the churches were that. A trio of bagpipes played on the lawn of Independent Presbyterian Church (est. 1755, its first minister part of the Continental Congress, with President James Monroe present for its dedication). About 10 blocks away, families burst from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (est. 1799 by French and Haitian immigrants). Through the open doorway a priest lifted high an infant over a wide baptismal font as extended family encircled and looked on. And across town at Christ Church (est. 1733, its early rectors being John Wesley and George Whitefield), the singing spilled from the balconies and pews and out across Johnson Square.

Christ Church received the first trust lot in Savannah (see "In the beginning") set aside for worship, from King George's Church of England, and later was declared by the colonial legislature the "Mother Church of Georgia." But having severed ties to the Episcopal Church (TEC), today it's regarded by its blue-blooded kin as a wayward stepchild.

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Like more than 100 churches nationwide, Christ Church broke with TEC over its well-documented liberalized faith ("Other Abrahamic faiths have access to God the Father without consciously going through Jesus," presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has said). The church's vestry voted unanimously to disaffiliate over "departure from doctrine" and to place the church under the Anglican Province of Uganda. The congregation approved, with 87 percent voting in favor out of over 300 ballots cast.

Division "happened over time," rector Marc Robertson told me, and 30-40 disaffected members set up a congregation downriver calling itself "Christ Church Episcopal." Last May TEC filed legal action against Robertson and the vestry, seeking to acquire the property on Johnson Square in Savannah's historic district. TEC has filed similar actions against churches in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas. This case turns on state trust laws and laws of incorporation, and is complex given that Christ Church predates the existence of the state of Georgia. TEC asserts that church property should be subject to denominational "discipline," which Christ Church forfeited when it quit the denomination, it says.

Funny things happen when a church takes a stand for the gospel. Sunday attendance at Christ Church is up and it accepted 28 new families-a record-for membership this past year. "We have a corporate sense of galvanization," said Robertson, "and are doing well spiritually. Our biblical literacy has increased because we are driven back to understanding why we believe what we believe."

Robertson says he's also discovered a cloud of witnesses: the Wesley Society in England and the Whitefield Society in Scotland, along with at least two dozen pastoral allies within the city-some who've offered to share facilities should Christ Church be evicted.

The legacy of a storied place like Christ Church cuts two ways. Faithful witness going back to men like Wesley and Whitefield is not confined to the building. "We believe that legacy goes with us," said Robertson, should the congregation have to leave. But part of that legacy, he realizes, involved battles over church doctrine. At one point Wesley was "marched out of the building and preached in the open air," and he left for England in 1737 viewing his service at Christ Church a failure. In that sense, Robertson notes, his congregation may follow in Wesley's footsteps. But note what followed: the first Great Awakening, led in part by Whitefield.

Said Robertson, "This is a great opportunity to put in practice all the things we teach in the abstract. When I say the church is not bricks and mortar, now I mean it. I tend to be more concerned about the people of God and not the temple of God. I let God take care of the temple."
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