Georgia, Episcopal Church settle with Savannah breakaway group

Posted May 3, 2012

[Episcopal Diocese of Georgia] The Episcopal Diocese of Georgia announced May 3 that the Episcopal Church and it have resolved the remaining issues between them and Christ Church Anglican, the group that separated from the Episcopal Church several years ago but which remained in the church building on Johnson Square in Savannah until last December.

“We are pleased that these remaining issues could be resolved and that all parties can move on,” said the Right Reverend Scott Anson Benhase, Bishop of Georgia. “We wish the congregation that departed God’s grace and peace.”

As a part of the resolution, the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia will withdraw its motion for contempt filed last month and the breakaway group will withdraw its petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After the Georgia Supreme court issued its ruling in favor of the Episcopal Church, the Diocese, and Christ Church Episcopal, the local congregation which remained with the Episcopal Church, the breakaway group relinquished the church property but asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Bishop Benhase added, “The historic mission of the Episcopal Church in Savannah and in Georgia flows through Christ Church. Episcopalians through the centuries have given sacrificially and worked faithfully to support the mission of Jesus Christ through His Body at Christ Church. The Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling last November and Christ Church Episcopal’s incredible growth in the last few years reaffirm that this mission, guided by the Holy Spirit, will continue in our church’s original home.”

Christ Church Episcopal’s rector, Michael S. White, said, “We are a community of faith and a church centered in worship and service to God and God’s world.  We remain saddened that our brothers and sisters decided to leave the Episcopal Church. Our church is diminished by their absence and by the loss of their voice in our midst. One of the great strengths of the Episcopal church has always been our ability to live in Christian love and unity even in the midst of diversity of thought and interpretation. Even though some have chosen to walk apart from us, our prayers and good wishes are with them. We continue to consider them our brothers and sisters in Christ and will hold them in our prayers as they seek to follow the path that they feel called by God to take.”

The dispute began in March 2006 when the church’s former rector and members of the vestry changed the church’s articles of incorporation to disavow Christ Church’s long-standing affiliation with the Episcopal Church. Subsequently in 2007, the former rector and vestry asserted that Christ Church would become affiliated with the Church of Uganda under the control of the Ugandan bishop.

The Diocese of Georgia then filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Chatham County and asked the court to declare that all real and personal property of Christ Church is held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Georgia as provided for in the Constitution and Canons of the church and the Diocese. The Episcopal Church joined the suit in support of the Diocese and to enforce its own trust interest in ensuring that parish property be used for the mission of the church.

In 2009, the Superior Court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese and, in 2010, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld this ruling.

On November 21, 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed these rulings and held that parish property must be used for the mission of the Episcopal Church and of the Diocese and that, accordingly, the Diocese is entitled to legal possession of the historic Christ Church building and other church assets for the benefit of those who remain faithful to the Diocese and the Episcopal Church.

Pursuant to the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling, the Diocese and Christ Church Episcopal will:
* Regain control of the Christ Church endowment funds;

* Regain control of all property and assets of Christ Church including the original corporate charter dating back to 1789, the corporate and church records and the website domain; and

* Own and have the exclusive right to use the names and marks “Christ Church, Savannah” and “the Mother Church of Georgia”.

The breakaway group will also pay to the Diocese and Christ Church Episcopal the sum of$33,437.18 and will reincorporate as “Christ Church Anglican.”  In addition, the Diocese and Christ Church Episcopal will dismiss their claims against the former rector and vestry members.

Christ Church, founded in 1733 shortly after the arrival of General James Oglethorpe and the original colonists, is known as the “Mother Church of Georgia” and is one of the oldest churches in the State of Georgia. The church has also been the home for many of Savannah’s most prominent citizens including Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low, Academy-award winner and songwriter Johnny Mercer and former mayor Malcolm R. Maclean.  It was also instrumental in the founding of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia in 1823.