It started off as a catchall congregation: Anyone who didn't count himself one of the Charles Towne Colony's dominant Anglican population and who, therefore, did not attend St. Philip's Church when it was at Meeting and Broad streets, walked the extra block northwest to the Independent Church, founded in 1681.

And today, it remains a catchall congregation of sorts, though it is firmly affiliated with the United Church of Christ and enjoys a partnership with the Presbyterian Church USA.

Now called Circular Congregational Church, it provides pews to anyone who prefers an inclusive liberal theology.

At the end of May, its pastor of 37 years, the Rev. Bert Keller, who has long set the tone at Circular, is stepping down.

Worshippers looking for hard answers and theological certainties probably would be disappointed by Circular's questioning, exploratory nature, says Sarah Jayne, a parishioner since the early 1990s.

"Bert helps to raise those questions; he doesn't give the answers," Jayne says. "I think Bert would acknowledge that he doesn't have the answers."

'The Peace Church'

When Keller started at Circular in the early 1970s, it was a small congregation whose mission was to reach out to marginalized people in the community. It was a mission that strongly appealed to Keller, he says.

Charleston at the time featured clusters of runaway teenagers and hippies who settled by the coast and congregated at The Poet, a King Street coffee house. When The Poet was shut down because of noise complaints, Circular's former pastor, the Rev. Bob Boston, invited the young people to use the church's Lance Hall once a week. Members of the congregation brought them casseroles for supper, and in exchange, the young people would join what Keller called a "rap session" with city officials and social services workers.

The chief of police came to talk with the kids; someone from the health department came. The idea was "to build a bridge between the alternative community and the traditional community," Keller says.

Once a month, the group met for a religious rap night. Keller got involved. "I just loved it," he says. About 300 kids turned out. "It was just amazing."

Soon the church expanded its services, setting up a marriage and family counseling center and helping substance abusers.

"Out of that vision that church really grew as a church that comprised a lot of people who were not in the mainstream of society, which gave the church a considerable amount of freedom because it wasn't defending anything," Keller says. "Instead, it was responsive to what we believe about the Christian faith, which has a lot to do with compassion, justice and peace."

In the 1970s, Circular Congregational Church, its members mostly opposed to the Vietnam War and the Cold War mentality that dominated at the time, became known as "the Peace Church."

Realm of ideas

Keller, 70, was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala. He attended Davidson College in North Carolina, studying history and philosophy, then earned a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.

A year in France opened his eyes to the wider world, he said. He followed it with a couple of years at Yale Divinity School, where he earned a master's in ethics.

For three years, he taught New Testament and biblical Greek (in French) at the university in Kisangani, Congo. After that, he landed in Charleston, where he worked in campus ministry for the Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery.

In 1971, he started teaching ethics at the Medical University of South Carolina, one of the nation's first medical research institutions to offer courses in the subject, Keller said. By 1975, Keller was a full-time faculty member. He retired from the Medical University 30 years later.

He says his tenure at Circular has delivered two main satisfactions.

"I really love the people," he says. "The congregation is extraordinary, warm, engaged, alive and real, just plain real."

He also appreciates the intellectual life of the church.

"I never have the feeling of having to dumb down things I'm working on," he says. It's a place where ideas play the central role.

'A certain aliveness'

Jayne says it was the variety of ideas, and the fact that such a variety was openly encouraged, that drew her and her husband, Bruce Jayne, to the church in the early 1990s.

She has served as president of the congregation, director of adult education and in other official capacities.

"Christ is the foundation upon which the church is built," she says, "but certainly there is openness to other teachings ... that have commonalities with Christian teachings."

The church has retained its inclusive character, inviting people of different cultures, creeds, sexual identities and philosophical persuasions to its sanctuary, she says.

"People are encouraged to broaden inward growth into outward expression through vocation or avocation," Jayne says.

Under Keller's leadership, the congregation has found ways to express the inner life of the mind and spirit through arts and culture, politics and social activism, she says.

Stephanie Hart, a freelance writer who has been attending Circular for about 15 years, likes the way the church combines the basic tenets of Christianity with "a certain aliveness or progressive view of faith."

Keller, she says, has been a rich blessing. "He's just a remarkable person, and he's a challenging thinker and a gentle soul," but also funny, irreverent and humble, Hart says.

His goal is to empower the congregation, not preach for his own glory, she adds.

"It's not about him, there's no ego."

The church's search committee is in the process of identifying an interim pastor, Hunt says.

'In here'

Keller says his task at Circular has been to tie together two strands of thought: the idea that a "living tradition 2,000 years old, forged by people, many of whom were much brighter and deeper than we are" is something worthy of great respect, but that tradition and history must not interfere with the "organic experience" of someone's spiritual awakening.

"We look at tradition not as dogma but as a resource," he says.

And then Keller cites one of his favorite passages from Scripture, a parable of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, one he says informs his thinking about the necessary vitality of religious faith:

"Every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

It's the combination that keeps faith alive and relevant, he says.

"When we only bring out what is old, then we totally miss out on what's going on today," Keller says. "When we only bring out what is new, then we rob ourselves of depth and we become superficial."

When he leaves Circular at the end of May, he hopes to travel to the remote northeast corner of England, to a village of about 1,500 people where there is a community of Christians eager to discover a new vision for the church and its ministries, Keller said.

Seven tiny parishes are looking for someone to "find a new way to be the church in a society in which churches are so severely marginalized," he said.

Keller will travel to Celtic lands where Christianity is "creation-centered," earthbound, mythical. Every mountain is a holy mountain, every well a sacred spring. "It is a place to find God in the world rather than someplace outside the world," he says.

This jibes perfectly with Keller's theological views. He is the sort of Christian who prefers to cast his sights on the physical world around him, searching therein for spiritual truth.

"It's the center of where the action is -- if you start to think of the action being not out there but in here," he says, tapping his heart.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or aparker@postandcourier.com.