For nearly three hundred years, Christians have met for worship at a church on the eastern side of Johnson Square in Savannah, Georgia. Known today as Christ Church Episcopal, the church’s lineage is a long and illustrious one filled with notables.
On a recent Sunday morning my voice blended with the liturgical responses of those whose spiritual if not actual ancestors had listened to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church and the church’s rector from 1736-1737. He came from England at the behest of Savannah’s founder, James Oglethorpe, who wanted him to evangelize the Native Americans. While there, Wesley started the first Sunday school and published the first English hymnal in America.
George Whitefield also preached from the pulpit. Considered the most prominent preacher in the 18th century, this British Anglican helped spread the Great Awakening revival throughout the colonies. In 1738 he served as a parish priest in Savannah before he returned to England to raise money for an orphanage.
Until 2006, the congregation at this “Mother Church of Georgia” remained united through the traumas of a civil and two world wars, multiple fires, economic disasters and the construction of three edifices on the same property. Then a theological rift diverted this stream of Christian unity that predated the nation.
Unlike church splits over worship styles, carpet color, or budget issues, this split was over issues considered foundational to orthodox protestant faith. In 2006 Episcopal Church leaders wavered over the meaning of Jesus’ claim in Mark 14:6, that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” Long interpreted to mean that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and that salvation comes no other way, a Savannah priest from the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia wrote in a letter to the local newspaper editor that this verse has nothing to do with salvation. Later an Episcopalian Bishop interpreted it to mean that belief in other faith traditions can also lead to salvation.
A second issue was whether the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God rather than merely inspirational. Historically the Episcopal Church held to the first position as evidenced in the catechism Q and A which declares the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God “because God inspired their human authors”, but shifted in the 21st century.
When the Christ Church vestry (akin to an elder board) decided to disaffiliate with The Episcopal Church and align with the Anglican Communion in 2007, a legal brouhaha with multiple lawsuits wound through the court system for six years. The Episcopal Church won the property dispute, and those dissatisfied with the theological shift established a separate church, Christ Church Anglican.
Surrounded by Early American history, architectural beauty, and the tradition of faithfully preaching the Word, the rift haunted me. For nearly three hundred years this body of believers had held tightly to core doctrine, then shifted. The congregation split a year later and fought legal battles for another five.
Legacy is a wonderful treasure, but it offers no guarantees. When essential tenets of faith are altered like music styles and flooring preferences, a rift may be necessary to protect the core precepts. Even when that means the once-unified stream now flows through two channels rather than one.