The newly appointed provisional bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina said he is taking the long view on a theological dispute that has split Lowcountry Episcopalians and spawned at least one lawsuit over the division of some $500 million worth of church property.
“I believe while we have diverged at this point in history on our paths, one day those paths will converge once again,” the Rt. Rev. Charles Glenn vonRosenberg said this week. The retired bishop of East Tennessee was called back into service last week to assist congregations that want to remain with the national Episcopal church. VonRosenberg, who retired to Daniel Island in 2011 with his wife, Annie, is expected to be elected bishop at a special convention Jan. 26 in Charleston.
VonRosenberg’s predecessor, Bishop Mark R. Lawrence, and a majority of clergy and parishioners within the Lowcountry diocese broke away from The Episcopal Church (TEC) in November, citing irreconcilable theological differences over issues related to gender and same sex marriage, and wider concerns about the liberal tilt of the national church and church policy. The U.S. church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which Lawrence and the breakaway diocese remain members.
Lawrence’s diocese was not the first to split with the national church, but it has been among the more public, with TEC Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori declaring Lawrence in abandonment of the communion of the church last fall. Shortly after, the diocese held a special convention and formally dissolved its Episcopal relationship.
Those actions pain vonRosenberg, a cradle Episcopalian who considers the Episcopal Church his “spiritual home” and his fellow Episcopalians his spiritual family. But he considers Lawrence a friend and colleague and regards those who left the Episcopal Church with no animosity.
“It’s a sad time when a church experiences a split and there is a good deal of pain and a good deal of concern about the future as a result of such a split,” vonRosenberg said. “But what has happened, and I’ve said this publicly in various places, is that one group of Christians, former Episcopalians, have decided in good faith to follow a different path in responding to their understanding of the call of Christ.
“As the Episcopal church, we are likewise trying to be faithful to the call of Christ. Therefore, we are fellow Christians and my hope is that we will continue to care for one another and pray for another and wish each other well.”
For Lawrence, who served for five years as the Lowcountry bishop, that mutual care does not extend to the use of the historic name of the diocese, which extends back to 1785. Because the founding of the diocese predates the founding of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Lawrence has laid claim to using the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and enjoined those left behind from using it.
VonRosenberg acknowledged that issue has created some confusion, since both Lawrence’s diocese and the “continuing diocese” are operating under the same name. Last week, Lawrence’s group filed suit to keep church properties that are now aligned with him.
VonRosenberg said he cannot answer questions about the lawsuit. But he believes his main responsibility is to provide pastoral care to those who are hurt and confused by the discord.
“I think my first priority must be pastoral care to clergy and to congregations, especially to congregations that have experienced significant trauma recently,” said vonRosenberg, who served in the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina for many years. “My second priority is education. We need to spend time and talking about the Episcopal church. There is an awful lot of misinformation. The Episcopal Church is truly diverse and accepting of diversity and that goes to both sides of the spectrum.”
At least 19 parishes and missions and six worship communities in the diocese have indicated they are remaining with The Episcopal Church. About 41 congregations are aligned with Lawrence and some remain undecided.
The provisional bishop said he won’t shy away from difficult conversations as the conflict continues, but he said his Christian faith requires him to remain hopeful about a peaceful resolution.
“As Christian people, we live in hope. That is what we have to live for,” he said. “I’m a hopeful person. I firmly believe that things which unite us are far more significant than the things that divide us.”
But he said an open, frank discussion is important.
“The issues of the present day need to be discussed by the church because the church is made up of people in the present day,” he said. “I want the church to be a part of people’s lives, and that means that sometimes we have to have conversations that are difficult to have.”