Christ Church Responds to Georgia Supreme Court Ruling

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Christ Church, The Mother Church of Georgia in Savannah, has learned that the Georgia Supreme Court (GSC) has issued a ruling concerning Christ Church’s appeal to that body. On November 21, 2011 the GSC declared that the property of Christ Church is held in trust for the national Episcopal church and its Georgia diocese.

The litigation has been ongoing since 2007 when 87% of the Christ Church (CC) members in good standing voted to uphold the unanimous decision of its board to disaffiliate from The Episcopal Church (TEC) because of its revisionist theological trends over the last several decades. In an effort to seize the property TEC subsequently sued Christ Church, its rector and individual board members personally. TEC’s 1979 passage of the Dennis Canon claimed a unilateral trust over all property of Episcopal churches nationwide without regard to title or state property laws. Christ Church has owned the Johnson Square property since the 1700s, first by land grant from the English Royal Council and after the Revolutionary War by a charter of incorporation from the 1789 Georgia state legislature.

“Christ Church has always maintained clear title to the property and has never agreed to hold its property in trust for any entity. We are reviewing the ruling and will meet to determine our next course of action which could include an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if warranted,” stated Jim Gardner, CC legal counsel. “At its core this case is about fundamental property rights of individual congregations in hierarchical churches,” he continued.
In his dissenting opinion, Judge S. Phillip Brown described the majority decision with these words: “Today’s majority opinion effectively eviscerates many of Georgia’s property laws, trust laws, and equity laws…”

“The Episcopal Church has sought to exploit the judicial system in an attempt to coerce local congregations to accept its revisionist theology,” stated David Reeves, Christ Church board chairman. “Our congregation is one of 57 individual congregations and 3 dioceses (groups of congregations) nationwide that have been sued by TEC. The conflict has been about our determination for God’s truth with all of its consequences and TEC’s will to embrace ever-changing interpretations of the historic Christian faith,” Mr. Reeves continued.

“Should Christ Church not have access to its property during any appeal process, Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) in downtown Savannah has graciously offered to allow us to hold services in their building,” said Mr. Reeves.

Marc Robertson, Christ Church Rector said, “We are gratified and encouraged by the outpouring of support from the Christian community here in Savannah, as exemplified by the offer from IPC. As revisionist theology continues to make inroads into other mainstream denominations we foresee more opportunities for joining in fellowship and service with those congregations which adhere to the historic Christian faith. Throughout the last four years Christ Church has refused to allow the litigation to become the sole focus of its mission and ministry. Those efforts will continue even though our congregation may not have access to our property.”

A service of thanksgiving for all of the Lord’s provision for us during these last four years is scheduled for Monday, November 21, 2011 at 6 p.m. at Christ Church on Johnson Square. “It is our sincere hope that all those individuals and congregations who have so graciously supported us through this process will join us,” said Marc Robertson.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC ConflictsTEC Conflicts: GeorgiaTEC Departing Parishes* Culture-WatchLaw & Legal Issues

10 Comments
Posted November 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Ian+ wrote:

If they take your jacket, give them your sweater too. How much good work could have been done with what’s being spent on litigation? These are buildings, after all, and no matter the historic value of them, the Church is more and bigger than that and is called not to be a curator of historic sites but the worshipping and witnessing Body of Christ. Let costly, empty buildings be 815’s witness to the world of where its love is directed. But let the faithful be trusting enough in the providence of God to walk away and start over.

November 21, 4:51 pm | [comment link]
2. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Ian+,

I respect your view, which is reasonable enough and widely held by honorable orthodox Christians.  However, I myself don’t fault the congregation for seeking to protect what is rightly their own, or rather, to keep the Lord’s building and assets from falling into the hands of unscrupulous and heretical enemies of the true gospel.

I look forward to seeing how the Anglican Curmudgeon tears apart the reasoning behind this ruling.  Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, the national Supreme Court (SCOTUS) will be almost forced to set a national policy in property cases such as this.  If so, I have little doubt that SCOTUS will do a far better job than this lousy, feckless GA high court has done.

However, for those T19 readers who may find this disappointing result disheartening, I call attention to the brave and inspiring words of ++Bob Duncan the Lionhearted at the recent diocesan council in Pittsburgh.  As most readers will know, the orthodox congregations in western PA are having to relocate and give up their endowments, etc.  Yet ++Duncan reported that wherever he goes, he hears the same thing: that the faithful have no regrets and that they aren’t discouraged but are refusing to “look back in the rear view mirror.”  The same is true in Vancouver and other places.

This is a tremendous witness, whereas this Pyrrhic victory is a PR disaster for TEC.

May the Lord Jesus fulfill his promise first given to Peter and the first disciples who asked what their reward would be for leaving all to follow him (see Matt. 19:27-30), i.e., that they who leave behind houses, or family, for his sake will receive back “a hundred-fold” more of the same, along with persecutions.  And in the age to come, life everlasting.

A fine statement by rector Marc Robertson and the courageous people of Christ Church.  John Wesley and George Whitefield (former pastors) would be proud of them.

David Handy+

November 21, 6:03 pm | [comment link]
3. NoVA Scout wrote:

No. 2:  It may be that, even if the Supreme Court of the United States becomes involved, there will still be variations from state-to-state, fact situation-to-fact situation in these disputes.  The Georgia and Virginia cases (as well as cases in New York, Connecticut, and Ohio) are ones in which a departing group within a parish tried to assert ownership of Episcopal properties as they disaffiliated from the Diocese and the national church.  California and Texas involve departing groups leaving and asserting that they are the Diocese (in other words, those situations do not just involve factions within parishes, but essentially raise issues about whether there remains a Diocese that can assert rights on behalf of worshippers who do not elect to disaffiliate).  South Carolina appears to be well down the road to presenting yet and entirely different fact pattern, but one that seems to be heading more toward the model of the purported Diocesan departures than individual parishioners departing.  Then, also, there may be variations in state property law that affect the ultimate outcomes.  It is as yet unclear whether any of these fact patterns will present issues that the Supreme Court of the United States will recognize as demanding its attention.  For example, the Virginia Supreme Court ruling on the applicability of the Commonwealth’s “Division Statute” was virtually appeal-proof beyond the state level, as it raised no constitutional or federal issues. 

Having said that, the borders between church and state are so gratingly close in some of these cases, I suspect at least one type will make it to the federal level eventually.  The result, however, may not be a result that resolves these issues in every jurisdiction.

November 21, 7:25 pm | [comment link]
4. Cennydd13 wrote:

“Purported?”  There’s nothing “purported” about our leaving; we LEFT, and only because we felt that we had NO OTHER CHOICE.

November 21, 9:27 pm | [comment link]
5. Pageantmaster ن [Repent Justin Welby] wrote:

Prayers for Rev Marc Robertson and the people of Christ Church.  God bless them.

November 21, 10:35 pm | [comment link]
6. NoVA Scout wrote:

I apologize, Cennydd13 - I know you (sing.) left the Episcopal Church and did so with a lot of like-minded people (you-pl.).  I respect that decision and understand you felt it was the only avenue for you. “Purported” is probably not the most precise word in this context.  However, I used it to convey the uncertainty of how a Diocese “leaves” under the governing documents of the Church and the Diocese.  While it is, of course, clear that you (sing. and pl.) left, that a number of people chose to reaffiliate, doesn’t mean that the Diocese “left”.  I think a good case can be made that the Diocese, an administrative unit of the Church, can’t really “leave” (or at least there is no mechanism for it to do so).  It remains there for those individuals who did not leave, and the personnel who man it are simply different people than those who, like you, decided to go elsewhere.

The issue is eerily similar to the sesquicentennial issue of whether states can leave the Union.  Those who said they could pointed to a lack of prohibition in the governing documents.  Those who said they cannot pointed to a lack of machinery for doing so (among other things).  This issue is different in that it won’t, thankfully, be settled by force of arms.  It may not get settled at all.

November 21, 11:40 pm | [comment link]
7. Milton wrote:

I wonder how Christ Church Episcopal will look and sound in a few years with a dome on top, front doors painted green, and Muslim calls to prayer blasting out from loudspeakers when the “thriving” “continuing” congregation can no longer afford to keep the doors open and the building is sold as a large, oddly-shaped mosque?

November 22, 10:24 am | [comment link]
8. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

NoVA Scout,

I grant your valid point that because of the tremendous variety in circumstances, even a Supreme Court ruling on a group of related cases wouldn’t provide a definitive resolution of all the legal disputes.  But a SCOTUS ruling would certainly help diminish all the chaos and uncertainty.

If the high court were to accept an appeal, say to resolve the conflicting or at least divergent decisions by SC and GA, one of the ironies is that SCOTUS currently has no Protestants on it, much less an Episcopalian.  With six RC’s and three Jews (albeit not all of them practicing Catholics or Jews), none of the justices would have to recuse himself or herself.  Usually the high court has had at least one Episcopalian on it (as I assume you know, NoVA Scout, but I’m pointing it out for those readers who may not know it), but Sandra Day O’Connor was the last one.

David Handy+

November 22, 10:55 am | [comment link]
9. Cennydd13 wrote:

I would expect a more even-handed approach to any decision made by SCOTUS since there are no Episcopalians now serving on the Court.  In other words, no bias…...implied or otherwise.

November 22, 2:13 pm | [comment link]
10. NoVA Scout wrote:

No. 9:  were there any Episcopalians on the Georgia court?  It appears that one judge recused himself.  Perhaps it was because he was an Episcopalian. 
No. 8, I was vaguely conscious of those religious affiliations on the court, but it’s an interesting observation and worth making here.  I think this kind of dispute would be very difficult for a Jew or Roman Catholic to fully appreciate this kind of property chaos.  In either case, the possessory interests of persons leaving a synagogue or a Roman Catholic church would be very clear (although for different reasons).

November 23, 12:09 am | [comment link]
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