Bishop Charles vonRosenberg

Bishop Charles vonRosenberg (center, black shirt) and deputies at The Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention in Anaheim, Cal.

In a court of law, beneath not a cross but an American flag, two men of God sit at opposing tables awaiting oral arguments in their earthly schism.

They represent a rancorous split among local Episcopalians whose families have shared historic pews for generations. Now, both men claim to be the rightful bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and are here to stake claims to its names and seals.

On the right sits Bishop Mark Lawrence, who left the Episcopal Church last fall along with the majority of eastern South Carolina parishes and clergy fed up with the perceived progressive theological stances of the national church and various administrative disputes.

On the left sits Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, who was lured from retirement to lead those loyal to their national church and its efforts to respond to modern-day culture, including equal inclusion of gays and lesbians into Christ’s fold.

A federal judge arrives.

The bishops, in matching purple shirts and white collars, sit quietly through legal arguments.

But when the judge departs, vonRosenberg turns and extends a hand toward Lawrence.

The men shake, exchange pleasantries and head for the elevators.

There, they part ways, each with his entourage.

It was, of course, merely a gentlemen’s handshake. But it underscores vonRosenberg’s hope of how this conflict might end, once the friction brought to this courtroom has cooled.

Perhaps after departures will come reunion.

“Some people need to take this step in their spiritual journey. But we don’t lock the door behind them,” he says.

Never has vonRosenberg known an Episcopal Church at complete peace.

Since his seminary days, the church has grappled with all that society has brought to its door, from women’s rights to gay rights. It is an indication that the Episcopal Church, the American province of the global Anglican Communion, is engaged in the world around it.

And it is why, as bishop of the Episcopal Church of South Carolina, vonRosenberg is determined to keep the door open to those who have left.

He points to his own path as a young man who left the church to answer his questions and determine his life’s calling.

A cradle Episcopalian, vonRosenberg grew up in North Carolina with parents active in their parish. While an undergraduate at Sewanee: University of the South, he considered going into the ministry.

But it was the 1960s, with social change storming America, and he needed to explore first. He transferred to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “with lots of questions.”

But questions were OK in the Episcopal Church — then and now, he says. “We’re a big tent. As long as we’re inside the tent, we’re OK.”

In 1969, he graduated and began to teach high school English. It wasn’t his calling.

“I recognized a great sense of void in my life,” he says.

He enrolled at Virginia Theological Seminary outside of Washington, D.C., the largest in the country, and took his questions with him. One in particular lingered and nudged:

Is God calling me to the priesthood?

At seminary, “I had a sense of being home that invigorated that call,” vonRosenberg recalls.

The church was embroiled in a great social controversy, this one over the ordination of women, which he supported.

“I had all sorts of professors with all sorts of ideas of what the faith should be like,” vonRosenberg says. “It was once again an affirmation.”

In 1974, the year he earned his master’s in divinity, several women were ordained without the authorization of the church’s General Convention. Two years later, the convention allowed women to become priests, and an uproar ensued.

People left. But many, he says, have returned.

A newly married, freshly ordained priest in his mid-20s, vonRosenberg set out.

He worked at small churches around the Southeast. Then, he spent 11 years in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, which comprises the western half of the state, eventually serving as canon to the ordinary.

From there, he went to the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee and, in 1998, was elected its bishop. He served for 12 years spanning the tragedies of Sept. 11 and the economic downturn.

He also served in the House of Bishops, as ex-officio member of Sewanee’s board and then an elected member of its board of regents. He twice attended Lambeth Conferences, gatherings of the world’s Anglican bishops.

Throughout it all, he worked in conservative areas even as the national church took progressive theological stances. He referred over and over to the big tent, hoping to keep it large enough to shelter people of many views.

“We don’t have to be alike. But we have to be connected,” he says.

Then came Gene Robinson, and it seemed no tent was large enough.

In 2003, Robinson became the first priest in an openly gay relationship to become bishop in the Episcopal Church. He wore a bullet-proof vest to his consecration.

He was “very conflicted” and did not vote for Robinson’s consecration.

He supported equality for same-sex couples but felt the move was premature, he says. The church had not yet approved rites for blessing same-sex unions or laid other groundwork for fully embracing gays and lesbians into the church or its leadership.

“I was not just voting on my own beliefs. I had to keep in mind what was in the best interest of the larger church,” he explains.

After the rancorous votes, vonRosenberg headed home.

He stopped in Newark, N.J., and met up with a group of liberal clergy who celebrated the historic election. But vonRosenberg reminded them that bishops like himself would be returning home to great unrest.

He warned: Don’t forget our more conservative members.

“We had people who felt betrayed, and others who felt affirmed,” he recalls.

At times, it felt like he heard from them all. Individually.

In 2009, he formed a committee of people — gay, straight, male, female, ordained, lay, conservative, liberal — to meet monthly for a year.

The Bishop’s Committee on Inclusivity held many “respectful and holy conversations,” he says, to discuss such questions as whether homosexuality is a sin and if gays and lesbians should marry.

They did not agree.

“But we developed a significant level of trust,” he says. “We were able to share whatever we wanted to. And we knew our sharing would be respected. It was really a profound experience.”

After a year, the committee offered to speak at any church that invited them to discuss how they engaged despite their differences.

“We need to reclaim our identity, which is a big tent,” vonRosenberg says. “That’s part of the sadness of what has happened in South Carolina. We need those conservative voices. The body of Christ is a body, and we need all of the parts.”

He notes that people left the church when women and African-Americans were ordained, when the Book of Common Prayer was revised and after Robinson’s consecration. Some have returned.

“The Episcopal Church is very clear that we engage with those social issues because those issues are part of life,” he says. “It’s part of who we are. And it’s messy. For some people, that becomes too uncomfortable — for a while.”

When he retired as bishop of Eastern Tennessee, resentments lingered. The recession still hurt the diocese.

But he had overseen the creation of a major retreat center, and his 65th birthday approached. He had served the church for nearly 40 years.

He and his wife, Annie, spoke. All of their moves until then had been for the church. The next would be for the family.

When he announced his intention to retire, vonRosenberg told a diocesan newspaper that he wanted to spend more time with Annie, who had sacrificed much to support his ministry. He imagined watching her paint through leisurely days.

He wanted to be an active grandfather and enjoy guilt-free golf and tennis.

In 2011, he and Annie moved to Daniel Island to join their sons, Glenn and John, and their six grandchildren.

For that first year, vonRosenberg attended Grace Episcopal Church and helped when Lawrence requested.

“I was aware of our differences” in scriptural interpretation, vonRosenberg says. “But bishops have differences just like priests or lay people.”

He didn’t imagine that they soon would sit in a courtroom at opposing tables, a judge grilling their attorneys.

It was Nov. 15, and a pouring rain fit the mood at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for the first clergy day since the Diocese of South Carolina split apart.

Just weeks earlier, the national church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori had notified Lawrence that its disciplinary board found he had abandoned the church. After years of contention, Lawrence and most clergy in the diocese ultimately left.

Those who chose to remain gathered that stormy autumn morning at St. Mark’s. A sparse but devoted group, they were left with no earthly leader in town and not even an office to call their own.

Someone had turned off the church’s heat, leaving those in its pews damp and chilled.

Still, the 60 or 70 people gathered prayed.

A reading came from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus invites the faithful to engage in God’s work. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The retired vonRosenberg ambled up the chancel steps. The day’s liturgy, he noted, focused on ministry.

“But in this place in our day, we are handicapped in exercising our ministries. We are less than whole as the Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” he said.

He offered two observations.

“First, the church will be OK,” he assured.

After all, how many times in history has the church faced threats and dissension?

“Remember, there was a church split even before Jesus died. And church splits have been happening ever since. The church continues to exist in spite of those of us who are parts of it,” he added.

He pointed to one of his early parishes when two men became so entrenched in their arguments that they split the church apart. A bishop took vonRosenberg aside and reminded him: Visit the sick and the shut in.

Do it to remember why you were called to ministry.

“You need to take care of yourselves,” vonRosenberg reminded the clergy gathered before him. “These are stressful times, and they are trying times. You need to take special care of yourselves. ... Keep the fire of that first love for ministry burning.”

Holly Behre worked on the staff at Grace Episcopal when she was named to a steering committee trying to figure out what to do after the split.

They were in disaster mode.

Without local leadership, vonRosenberg became their adviser and connection to the national church.

“Having him here was that lifeline,” Behre says.

But he had moved here to retire. Would he sacrifice that?

“We knew in his heart he was cheering for us,” Behre says. “But it was a lot to ask.”

He and Annie talked. They prayed often.

“We both had some mixed emotions,” he recalls. His retirement, she noted wryly, “had been a great year.” But she supported his calling.

When he agreed to be considered for election, many breathed with relief.

“He is here to shepherd us,” Behre says.

In January, those loyal to the national church elected vonRosenberg provisional bishop.

At first, he worked in a kid-sized chair in one of Grace’s preschool classrooms, a silver-haired man answering email on his laptop near buckets of crayons. He had no office, no staff, only the needs of his people.

Today, he has an official office at Grace and even an adult-sized desk. From it, he gestures to a large watercolor painting of Annie’s hanging on the wall.

It’s of the marsh view off their front porch. He asked Annie to paint it so that, while sitting at the bishop’s desk, he could still enjoy their retirement view.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.