Christ Church will review the ruling and meet to determine next course of action which could include an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, says priest

By David W. Virtue

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church in its case against Christ Church today in a four-year dispute over property ownership that began in 2007.

The Court, which heard the case on May 9, 2011, affirmed the Georgia Court of Appeals’ July 2010 ruling in favor of the Episcopal Church. That ruling upheld Superior Court Judge Michael L. Karpf’s October 27, 2009 judgment that the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia is entitled to legal possession of the historic Christ Church building and other Church assets for the benefit of those who remain in the Diocese and The Episcopal Church.

“While we are grateful that a third court has upheld our legal rights to the property held in trust for The Episcopal Church for more than 200 years, whatever satisfaction we feel in prevailing in the courts is muted by the knowledge that this decision is painful for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Bishop Scott Anson Benhase said referring to the congregation that disaffiliated from The Episcopal Church while continuing to occupy church property.

Benhase added, “As Christians we know that even those with whom we disagree are also seeking to follow Jesus faithfully. While we were forced to take action when the breakaway congregation deprived the thriving congregation of Christ Church Episcopal of the property we hold in trust for them on Johnson Square, we know that both groups share faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world.”

The litigation has been ongoing since 2007 when 87% of 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. TEC’s 1979 passage of the Dennis Canon claims 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,” noted Mr. Reeves.

Marc Robertson, Christ Church Rector added, “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 that 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,” explained Robertson.

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