CHARLESTON, SC — Bishop Charles vonRosenberg was enjoying his retirement, taking some strokes off his golf handicap and spending time with his six grandchildren, when the Episcopal Church in eastern South Carolina was rent by schism.
Now, instead of spending carefree days on the state's coast after 37 years of service to the church, the former bishop of east Tennessee finds himself again ministering to individuals and congregations remaining with the national church and dealing with lawsuits resulting from the South Carolina split.
The conservative Diocese of South Carolina last year separated from the more liberal national Episcopal Church over a variety of theological issues, including the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays. The breakaway churches sued in state court to protect the use of the diocesan name and half a billion dollars' worth of property.
The 66-year-old vonRosenberg was elected this year as provisional bishop for the diocese re-forming from 22 parishes and seven worship groups remaining with the national church. It's not what he had foreseen for his retirement.
“I have regrets about what this has done to the church and what it has done to individuals,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “But given the reality of the circumstances, I have no personal regrets. I wish it were different. I wish the world for the church were different in South Carolina.”
Beyond all, he said, he hopes the church will reunite.
“I'm trying to take the long view, and our goal is reconciliation,” he said. “We are open to the return of those folks who have left the Episcopal Church. That's what I'm hoping and praying for. Is it going to happen quickly? No. But it's important to have that in mind.”
The bishop added: “These aren't enemies across the aisle. These are fellow Christians who have chosen to go a different way right now. We hope and pray that different way will not be long.”
VonRosenberg retired to Charleston's Daniel Island two years ago after serving in Tennessee. He earlier served parishes in both Carolinas and Georgia and was, for a time, the assistant to the bishop in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, composed of churches in the upper and western part of the state.
After the schism, he was approached about becoming provisional bishop. He talked it over with his wife of 40 years, Annie, as well as with colleagues who served as bishops in other dioceses restructured after churches left.
“I certainly was concerned,” he said. “There are on all sides concerned Christian folk. There are on all sides friends of ours. But I am committed to the Episcopal Church and remain committed to the Episcopal Church.”
It's been difficult on some of the faithful who find themselves with no church after their parishes voted to leave.
“We have had the Eucharist in a barbecue hut down in Edisto. That group has found another home in a chapel that isn't being used by an African-American church,” vonRosenberg said. “Our group in Florence is an accumulation of remnant Episcopalians from I think eight or nine churches. Each situation is different in how they came to be and how they are gathering, but they all want to Episcopalians.”
He expects the job of reconstituting the diocese “being a matter of years, rather than months.”
As for his retirement, vonRosenberg points to a painting of a Lowcountry landscape by his wife, an artist, hanging in his office at Grace Episcopal Church. The office has stained glass windows and once was part of a chapel.
“The reason she painted that for me and it's in this place is I can see what my retirement might have looked like,” he jokes.