SAVANNAH, Ga. — Rival congregations that battled for five years over rights to Georgia’s “Mother Church” after splitting in a disagreement over doctrine have settled their legal disputes, both sides said Thursday.
The settlement gives the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia all rights to the property and assets of Christ Church, established by the state’s colonial founders in 1733, and the rights to the names Christ Church Savannah and the Mother Church of Georgia. The congregation that broke away from the Episcopal Church will take on the name Christ Church Anglican.
Christ Church’s pastor and congregation split from the Episcopal Church in 2007, but kept the church’s 1840 sanctuary and property. The breakaway group’s leaders argue they left the Episcopal Church following decades of disagreement about doctrine, such as the path to God through Jesus and the importance of evangelization. They are among hundreds of breakaway churches that have left in dispute with the national church’s policies on homosexuality, highlighted by the 2003 consecration of gay Bishop Gene Robinson.
The Savannah dispute ended up before the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled in November that Christ Church’s $3 million property in the city’s historic district belongs to the Episcopal diocese under its governing hierarchy and bylaws. The breakaway group returned the sanctuary but filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has now been dropped as part of the settlement.
“God has given us the privilege of living out a truth we have always believed, that the Church is not the building but the people of God,” the Rev. Marc Robertson, the breakaway group’s pastor, said in a statement Thursday.
Georgia’s Episcopal bishop, the Rev. Scott Anson Benhase, issued a statement saying, “We wish the congregation that departed God’s grace and peace.”
Another Savannah church has been loaning the breakaway congregation space to hold Sunday worship services.
British Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia as the 13th British colony in 1733, set aside the land for Christ Church on Johnson Square in his original plans for Savannah and attended its first worship service. It has long been known as the “Mother Church of Georgia.”
Aside from ending the property dispute, the agreement Thursday also settles a pending lawsuit in Chatham County Superior Court over use of the name Christ Church Savannah — which the breakaway group had been using prior to the settlement. The Episcopal diocese claimed the two churches having similar names had caused confusion, with people sometimes going to the wrong location for weddings or funerals.