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Article No. 152

Batten down the hatches - dirty weather ahead

- Lessons from the case of Christ Church Savannah


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Founded in 1733, back in the days before Methodism, both John Wesley and George Whitfield were Rectors of this old and esteemed church. It is the leading church in Savannah in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia and is a lovely building with six imposing pillars at the front. The properties of the church are presently valued at three million dollars.

Christ Church has about three hundred members and it is in trouble. It found itself out of sympathy with the direction that ECUSA was taking and took action about a year ago to ensure that its contribution to diocesan funds were for use in the diocese only, and not for the national church. There was talk by some of it possibly leaving to come under some alternative jurisdiction. Eventually the Bishop of the Diocese was not willing to put up with this restriction on the funds they provided any longer - and no doubt there was a lot more going on beneath the surface! He wrote to the church giving them an ultimatum - basically he said that they were required to conform. A battle ensued! As I am a little distant from the actual scene I don’t have all the facts, but the bare bones of what has been happening is fairly clear. If you want more just google ‘Christ Church, Savannah‘.

The upshot of the dispute came on 14th October this year when the church decided by a sizeable margin to shift from the Episcopal Church of America to come under Archbishop Henry Oromobi of the Province of Uganda. About two hundred of the three hundred members voted to do this (an 87% majority), and the contrary vote was twenty four. The Rector of Christ Church said that they looked forward to working to build a biblical, missionary and united Anglicanism in North America. He also said that in the meantime nothing would change at Christ Church - their location, mission, ministry, education and worship services would continue as usual.

The Bishop of the diocese saw things a little differently and has now started legal proceedings to require the residents to relinquish all the Christ Church property they presently occupy. All three million dollars worth. He also appointed a new Rector for Christ Church. The two dozen or so who did not want to change jurisdiction, plus any others among those who did not vote, plus any newcomers) now meet elsewhere. The congregation that is joining the African Archbishop and that is staying put at Christ Church says it refuses to be intimidated by the Diocesan Bishop’s action. They are preparing to fight any legal case brought against them - and they reserve further comment until they have reviewed the legal documents as they become available to them. Both groups do, of course, continue to pray for each other.

Why is all of this of interest to us?

I think it important that all Anglicans should read the history of what is happening at Christ Church Savannah because similar things may possibly happen anywhere else in the world. That is, that congregations anywhere could divide over the issue of homosexuality (and ancillary matters) and decide to part from each other. There might well then be a legal fight over the assets - the nightmare about which Archbishop Rowan Williams forewarned us some time ago. Disputes about property could well erupt anywhere. And we must remember that that includes other property as well as buildings - there are plenty of pension funds and cash assets held in the some of the churches. It could even happen here.

Realising how this deeply disrupts the life and witness actual Christians - that it means some Christians uprooting and leaving the church they may have attended for decades - surely brings us sharply up against the key issue again: is this a dispute that warrants such a drastic solution? Looking at the various websites for Christ Church (both sides put up a case) - enables us to realise the disruption this causes in the lives of Christian brothers and sisters. This perhaps brings home to us all the divisive nature of this dispute. And also the extremely bad witness it is to the world about love between Christians.

I have said many times in these columns that the main problem in all of this is not the subject of the dispute (homosexuality etc) but the lack of a Christian response in how to deal with the dispute. The way to deal with this disagreement is not to bring the shutter down and refuse to fellowship with the other side, which is what has happened in this case. Archbishops have refused to celebrate communion with other Archbishops because they disagree about this issue. Can anyone imagine anything less Christian? Can anyone find anything anywhere in the New Testament that sanctions such an attitude? Does anyone imagine that what St Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 5 (verse 9 where he said ‘don’t associate with immoral people’) had relevance to two heads of two Anglican Provinces who differed over some matter of Christian practice? Do they really think that the Archbishop of Canterbury is an immoral person?

It is also worthy of note that biblical Christians are forbidden to go to law against other Christians - Paul is quite explicit in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter six, verses one to eight. He prefers Christians to let themselves be wronged, and calls down shame on them for their temerity in going into the law courts.  

What has happened is indicative of a severe blindness in Christians who feel their doctrine (or rather their interpretation of doctrine) more important than maintaining fellowship with other Christians in the same Anglican Communion. Because, and this is the key point, the conservatives are not saying that those who hold with homosexuality are not Christians - they just think that they are wrong. If they felt that such people were not Christian, then there might be some excuse for their attitude - though even that I would dispute it, because I feel that Christ taught us to be open and inclusive to everyone who is trying to follow Christ. But these conservative Archbishops do not say that the other Archbishops are not Christian - they say that they disagree with them on a doctrinal and practical matter - homosexuality.

As I have already said, it beggars belief when you look at it in the cold light of logic.

It is true of course that there are deeper issues that have surfaced. Undoubtedly there is an ex-colonial aspect in there somewhere. Maybe some African Anglicans finds it difficult to acknowledge an English head. Perhaps an even more important issue is the link between homosexuality and the basic question of how one regards the authority of the bible. I accept that that is an important and basic question. I have written extensively about this in previous articles and so I will not attempt to summarise yet again.

The point I am making is that whether it is a cross cultural problem or an authority of the bible problem or a homosexuality problem, Christians who differ radically should be able to work it out together given the love of Christ that exists - or should exist - between them. At the very worst they should be able to set up joint studies so that over the next decade or two they can all come to a common mind.

Instead we have some leaders of the Anglican Communion refusing to talk or fellowship with others in the Anglican Communion.

The outcome cannot be that the homosexuality problem should now be ignored. Homosexuality, now that it has come into prominence, cannot be brushed under the carpet as if it did not exist. With the widening recognition and acceptance of homosexuality in Western Countries any such move would simply mean the churches drifted further and further from reality. Nor can the Anglican Communion find unanimity in the suggestion by some that homosexuality is wrong and evil, or sick and perverted, or even merely ‘disordered’. Likewise it is clear that a large section of the Communion is not going to accept homosexuality as a gift from God - and may continue to hold such a view indefinitely. All of these solution just would not work.

If banning homosexuality, adopting a don’t ask-don’t tell policy and accepting homosexuality are all policies that will not work in the present Anglican Communion, then plainly there are only two possibilities. One is for the Communion to split into two or more parts, each adopting what it believes is right. Alternatively, time must be bought so that more investigation and discussion can be pursued.

I suspect that those churches that cannot accept homosexuality will run out of patience in the near future. I doubt if they will hang on for any great spell of time. If they do not get what they want (eviction of the gay accepting churches) I think they will be off - maintaining, of course, that they are the true and rightful Anglican Churches. That will be a claim also put forward by the other side of the dispute.

That only leaves the inevitable solution of a split of some sort. Enough of a split to enable the gay-rejecting section to feel their purity is not compromised. But not such a great split that the parting is irrevocable - producing two or more entirely separate churches.

How might the two separate Communions relate to each other to achieve this ‘separate but linked’ effect? It seems to me that it must be through the common factor of the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who represents in his person the union of all parts of the Communion. The two sections could be fully separate except in one respect: that they both owe allegiance of a sort to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been trying to do hold the warring sides together these last few years. Events are reaching a climax - the Lambeth Conference of 2008 would seem to be the crunch point. Everything is in flux. Will the centre hold? Let us pray God that there will be very few Christ Churches Savannah in the future. And let us all try to focus on what binds us together rather than what divides us.

Tony Cross

December 2007

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