Church fight more than brick and mortar

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Earlier this week in Christ Church in Savannah et al. v. Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia the Georgia Supreme Court ruled decisively in favor of the Episcopal Church USA, perhaps bringing a long legal battle over the ownership of an historic Savannah church property to an imminent conclusion. I have no interest in replaying the arguments advanced by both sides or drawing speculative conclusions about how God was involved in this protracted and multi-faceted struggle.

It will be tempting for outsiders to dismiss this four-year legal dispute as a fight over bricks and mortar and those who are pre-disposed to sneer at religion may adopt just such an approach. To do so would be to naively miss the mark.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition beautiful, consecrated worship space has always been very important. The Jews moved from a portable wilderness tent (itself elaborate and dazzlingly beautiful) into a Jerusalem temple that conveyed the majesty and otherness of God. With the destruction of the temple the synagogue became a place of beauty and holiness. The early Christians worshiped alongside streams and in private houses but soon moved into buildings of varying degree of humility or grandeur. Sacred space gives powerful testimony to God.

I once served a church that embarked on a comprehensive renovation that included converting a dark and seldom used parlor into a modern, attractive nursery. To my surprise that part of the plan was met with an impassioned outcry from church members who remembered significant and sacred moments in that space: weddings, funeral receptions, etc. They couldn’t bear to give up that space for reasons that were deep and powerful.

It’s easy to stand on the outside and decry a church fight over property. But lest we too quickly cast stones, homeowners should acknowledge how important their domestic space is to them. We consider our homes so important that we even purchase title insurance when we buy a home to be assured we have a free and clear title. Most of us would fight vigorously to defend our property and I probably don’t need to invoke the comparison with those secular cathedrals we call football stadiums.

If you think space makes no difference, try tearing down the home where you were born, converting your adult child’s old bedroom into a study or giving up your mancave for a sewing room. If every space is equally important — or unimportant — imagine turning a beautiful park into a toxic waste dump

We are creatures whose lives are defined by the spaces in which we live, play, work and worship. Barring further appeal, one group of Savannah Episcopalians may soon depart their four-year temporary sanctuary while another group of Savannah Episcopalians will perhaps soon discover what it means to move into a temporary sanctuary. It will be an emotionally significant moment for both congregations as they prayerfully examine the relationship between sacred space, faith and worship.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.