Thursday, September 1, 2016


The Episcopalians of eastern South Carolina are getting ready to say goodbye to their beloved bishop, the Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg ("Bishop Charlie"). He is a remarkable man who has overseen a remarkable three and a half years.

The grand old Diocese of South Carolina which had grown strong over a long, glorious, and sometimes painful past, shattered into four pieces between 2004 and 2012: All Saints of Pawleys Island, St. Andrew's of Mt. Pleasant, the independent diocese under Mark Lawrence, and the remnant in the Episcopal Church diocese. In the end, an Episcopal diocese that once counted as many as 31,000 members, was left with 5,113 in the Episcopal churches. In the schism, the membership of the entire institutional structure of the diocese left the Episcopal Church in October of 2012. Not one Episcopalian remained as bishop, chancellor, standing committee, council, or trustees. The Episcopal Church had to start from scratch to rebuild the official structure of its diocese. From the start, only one name was seriously mentioned to be the new bishop.

On January 10, 2013, the Steering Committee leading the transition of the reorganization of the diocese unanimously nominated the Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg to be the bishop provisional. Time was of the essence. DSC attorney Alan Runayn and his lawyer committee had entered a lawsuit against the Church six days earlier. vonRosenberg was well-known in South Carolina. Born in Fayetteville, NC, in 1947, he was graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and Virginia Theological Seminary. He served churches in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina (as Greenwood) and was canon to the ordinary in Upper South Carolina from 1989 to 1994 and the bishop of East Tennessee from 1999 to 2011. Afterwards, he retired to Daniel Island in Charleston to enjoy his six wonderful grandchildren. When the call suddenly came for his service to the Church again, he did not hesitate. He did not turn away, He did not make excuses. He answered the call of duty with faith and resolution and left his retirement to take on what would become, no doubt, the hardest job of his life, rebuilding a shattered diocese. He was approved by acclamation of the special convention and installed in office by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in Grace Church on Jan. 26, 2013.

A full accounting of "Bishop Charlie's" 3 and 1/2 year tenure would take a great deal of space. A summary is in order. When he began his episcopate, the diocese had 5,113 members in 19 local churches. Today there are around 7,000 in 31 local churches, 30 parishes and missions and 1 worshipping community. The first budget was $400,000, $175,000 of which was a grant from the national Church. Today the budget is $457,000, all of it from the diocese. From 2014 on, the diocese has been self-supporting. Bishop vonRosenberg's compensation package was about a third of that of Mark Lawrence's.

The bishop has overseen numerous occasions of joy that boosted diocesan morale and spirit enormously: special convention of Jan. 26, 2013 with the PB Jefferts Schori at Grace Church, Charleston; diocesan convention of 8-9 March 2013 at Grace; the Province IV bishops' conference of 25-27 June 2013 at Grace; annual convention of 21-23 February 2014 at Hilton Head; the Enthusiastically Episcopalian conference with PB Jefferts Schori, May 3, 2014 at Pawleys Island; annual convention of 14-15 November 2014 at Holy Communion/Calvary; annual meeting of 13-14 November 2015 at Pawleys Island, and the Presiding Bishop Curry weekend of 8-10 April 2016 in Charleston.

There were also difficult times too, not just in the endless and draining actions of litigation, but also with personnel. What to do about the clergy of the old diocese? There were 36 clergy present at the organizing convention. By June of 2013, the list of clergy in good standing totaled 74 (63 priests, 11 deacons). The most recent list, in 2014, showed 94 clergy (83 priests, 11 deacons). 103 clergy of the old diocese, who had taken vows of loyalty to the Episcopal Church, abandoned the Episcopal Church. Rather than deposing them, as he could have done, vonRosenberg gave them "release and removal" removing them from Holy Orders but leaving the door wide open for their reconciliation with the Episcopal Church, much as the Presiding Bishop had done with Bishop Lawrence on December 5, 2012. Two priests did return to the Church.

Bishop vonRosenberg showed great leadership also in regards to two old issues hanging over the diocese, racism and homosexuality. On June 17, 2015, a gunman massacred nine people in an evening Bible study group in Emanuel A.M.E. Church, on Calhoun Street, in Charleston. After the expected called for prayer and support, vonRosenberg oversaw an extensive program throughout the diocese to combat racism. On the matter of rights for homosexuals, vonRosenberg unhesitatingly forged ahead with full rights for all people. On July 8, 2014, he announced the diocesan plan for the blessing of same-sex unions in the church. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the nation. A few days later the General Convention of the Episcopal Church changed the canons of the Church to allow for same-sex marriage. Three weeks after that, Bishop Charlie announced that same-sex marriage would begin in the diocese on the earliest date possible, November 29, 2015.

Provisional bishops, typically retired members of the House of Bishops, are meant to be temporary, usually serving as a transition for a few years. After three years, Bishop vonRosenberg announced that he would end his tenure soon. He made the public announcement in January of 2016 and said he would serve at least through his already set schedule to June 26, 2016.

What to do about the future of the diocese has taken two tracks. In one, a Diocesan Futures Committee was set up on 5 November 2015 to begin a general planning for the future direction of the diocese. On March 15, 2016, they announced four feasible options for the diocese moving forward: 1-Full-time bishop (budget would have to double), 2-Part-time bishop, 3-Continue with a part-time provisional bishop, 4-merge with the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. The committee reported that #4 was the least likely. See

 In the other, the Standing Committee has conducted a search process for a bishop to replace vonRosenberg. Their reports suggest an announcement is imminent. We should know momentarily the name of the new candidate. Once a choice is made, a special convention will be called to formally approve the new bishop. See ; and .

Meanwhile, a grateful diocese is preparing to bid farewell to a remarkable bishop. A reception for the vonRosenbergs will be on Saturday, June 11, 4-6 p.m., at Porter-Gaud school in Charleston.

In sum, no one could have done a better job of leading the reorganization and rebuilding of the Episcopal Church diocese of South Carolina than Bishop vonRosenberg. Throughout the long months of hard work, he never complained and he never criticized the people who had forced the crisis to put him in this unexpected spot. He has never been known to say an unkind word about the other side. Too, he has never claimed that God is on his side alone.

The bishop, of course, was not alone in making a glorious resurrection of the diocese. Countless ordinary people from Okatie to Cheraw refused to be vanquished and met in homes, on boat docks, in bar-be-que restaurants, old schools, funeral homes, borrowed churches and wherever to keep alive an inclusive faith. They are all heroes too.

The schism has been an ordeal. It was unnecessary and unjustifiable. It caused a great deal of pain across eastern South Carolina. Nevertheless, out of the darkness came light, and that light was led by a man of courage, wisdom, resolution, and love. As sometimes happens in history, he was the right man at the right time in the right place. Accident? I don't think so. The Episcopalians of lower South Carolina, who have endured so much misfortune, should realize that they have also been blessed beyond measure.