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Of Churches, Guns and What We've Come to

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
The Wall Street Journal relates the sad saga of a Christian body riven by dissension at an awful moment for dissension among Christians.

"Episcopalians along the South Carolina Coast," says the Journal, "are battling in court to determine which of two factions owns an estimated $500 million in church buildings, grounds and cemeteries, following an acrimonious split last year over social issues."


Two-thirds of Episcopalians in the venerable Diocese of South Carolina (whose cathedral is at Charleston) have chosen reluctantly to stand apart from a national church structure they see as warping the Christian Gospel into a legal brief for political and social goals. There might have been room for discussion of various matters that fall under such a heading but for the longtime talent of the Catholic Church's legislative body (in which I serve as a lay deputy) for stifling objections to the new vision.

For South Carolina, in the Journal's account, the parting of the ways came last November over the national church's "blessing of same-sex unions, ordination of gay clergy and its liberal approach to other social and theological issues. The breakaway faction then filed a state lawsuit to assert ownership of 35 parishes," saying "it shouldn't have to turn property over to a church that it believes has drifted from Biblical principles."

National headquarters loaded its legal cannons and fired back, as in previous instances (Fort Worth, Northern Virginia, etc.) when conservative parishes and dioceses asserted their right to leave the national structure, taking property with them.

The legal points at issue -- what does a church own, and how? -- have about them the odor of ripe cheese gone bad. To this the Christian Gospel has come? - to sheaves of densely printed legal documents, to bench conferences and may-it-please-the courts? St. Paul's admonition against Christians brawling in the courtroom with fellow Christians has rarely looked more pertinent.


Irony asserts itself. The spiritual heirs of conservative Episcopal churchmen who 50 years ago put up, tolerantly, with the exploratory notions of theological liberals find themselves the targets of law suits aiming at, in effect, the imposition of liberalism on the whole church.

What an awful time for it, I repeat. A page or two over, the Journal reports on the gun control shoot-out commencing in Congress, centering on the question, shall we control crime and guns or not?

The idea has built, ever since Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968, that the will to kill is closely tied up with the means of killing. Which is likely true in a sense -- a marginal one. The will to kill, if history shows us anything, is tied up far more closely with defects of human morals and character. A properly formed will is supposed, most of the time, not to fall for enticements to wreak havoc and horror on others. It doesn't always work. There's this theological factor called sin, which militates against human perfection.

This is where churches and the nations and civilizations that gathered themselves in and around churches are supposed to come in. These are supposed to temper and smooth down human behaviors, by talking about sin and its grievous consequences.

The indispensability of churches to social peace was formerly clear to the churches themselves, which by and large took seriously their duty to speak the word of God to peoples in no small need of that word.


This was of course before the age of the property dispute -- the battle over titles and ownership; things viewed by implication as the highest Christian goods, Christianity having been merged in many minds with the politics of the moment.

Guns? Schoolhouse massacres? Sin (as the clerics call it)? Politicians and judges can take care of all that. Isn't politics the sum of everything important? Aren't the courts there to give effect to whatever it is politicians decide?

All rise! Book for book, in the eyes of the ecclesiastical bureaucrats laying legal claim to Charleston's churches, "Slominksy on Property" must rank right up there with Isaiah, Matthew and Romans. At least we finally know.

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