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SC: Bishop Charles VonRosenberg has history of passive aggressive behavior

SC: Bishop Charles VonRosenberg has history of passive aggressive behavior
He is not what South Carolina Episcopalians think he is or what they want

Special Report

By David W. Virtue
January 18, 2013

When moderate to conservative Episcopalians in the Diocese of South Carolina who have decided to remain in The Episcopal Church get their new bishop in the person of Charles Glenn vonRosenberg, they will be in for a rude awakening. He is not what he appears to be, according to some who know him well.

VonRosenberg was the Bishop of East Tennessee before retiring and moving to live on Daniel Island, a community in Charleston, in the Diocese of South Carolina. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has called him out of retirement to head up the rump Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina following the departure of Bishop Mark Lawrence along with the bulk of the diocese from the Episcopal Church.

Three former members (one holds a Ph.D.) of the Church of the Ascension, the largest Episcopal parish in Knoxville in the Diocese of East Tennessee, have very distinct recollections of vonRosenberg.

"He is classic passive aggressive," says Hank Bahr, 63, an insurance consultant and lifelong Episcopal layman who knows VonRosenberg well.

Bahr was on the vestry and later became Director of the Knoxville chapter of the American Anglican Council (AAC) when VonRosenberg was bishop back in 2006. The parish was arguably the most conservative parish in the diocese. That clearly worried VonRosenberg.

"We were reading VOL at that time and it hit many of us that the Episcopal Church was not the church of our parents. The Episcopal Church was changing. It had left us orthodox Episcopalians behind."

So Bahr decided, along with a small group of 5 or 6 others, to start a chapter of the AAC. They wanted to get folks thinking and talking about what was going on in the Episcopal Church along with the changes that were happening in and to the beloved church into which he had poured more than 40 years of his life. It was never his intention to leave the Episcopal Church, but to be a voice of orthodoxy within it.

"I started an AAC chapter and became its president. Von Rosenberg was not terribly friendly with the AAC. In fact, he became downright unfriendly as time wore on. The fact that I was on the vestry of Ascension and Director of the AAC in East TN did not go over very well. At the time, the Church of the Ascension was considered the most conservative parish in the diocese. We wanted to be an orthodox island of hope in a sea of liberals, but VonRosenberg did not encourage this even though he positioned himself as a conservative bishop on the issues.

"When we published some figures revealing that the state of the diocese was actually going down, figures which we got from the diocese's own website, VonRosenberg accused me of manipulating and falsifying the numbers. In a letter to me on June 9, 2006, even after repeatedly showing him the figures from his own website, he stated, 'I request that you cease unfair attacks on your Christian brothers and sisters in this diocese and beyond.'

"Charles made it clear that there were to be no AAC meetings on the premises of Ascension. The small group of us was stunned when we heard the news.

"On May 22, 2006, I sent out a letter to several communicants of three churches in the diocese stating the Orthodox view of the then current events of the Episcopal Church. That was it. I was not asking for any action. I just wanted people to know what was happening in The Episcopal Church.

"As it happened, on May 29, 2006 a parish wide meeting had been called to discuss the current events as it affected the Church of the Ascension. When vonRosenberg appeared, he immediately sat down and took over and started talking about problems at Ascension. Suddenly, I was being attacked by fellow parishioners. I was stunned. There were no problems in Ascension. He was mad because I had sent out a letter asking for a conversation (a favorite expression of then Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold). Suddenly, it was not about the content of the letter I had sent out, it became an attack on me for asking questions.

"I was stunned, blown away. I could not believe my ears. People shouted at me and VonRosenberg just listened and kept the microphone going around for more folks to go after me.

"Following the meeting I knew my time was up at Ascension.

"When I read in an ENS press release that his tenure in East Tennessee 'was marked by a measured approach and a focus on reconciliation and relationship,' and that he 'worked to acknowledge diversity and build a spirit of openness in the diocese,' I nearly threw up. That was not what happened. I was there. I experienced VonRosenberg first hand.

"The release said he also was 'noted for putting a priority on pastoral sensitivity and responsiveness, especially to clergy, their families and churches.'" That was sure not my experience, said Bahr.

The activist layman said he and his family then left Ascension to help start Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, first under AMIA and now under Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan. "We have never looked back. The parish is growing by leaps and bounds and we couldn't be happier."

Bahr added, "VonRosenberg's modus operandi worked. He steered the meeting away from discussing the truth about what was going on in TEC to an ad homonym attack about me. It was a brilliant move. He is TEC's man and South Carolina is his reward."

Another former Ascension leader confirmed Bahr's observations.

Ron Henry, Chair of the Ascension Network Commission in '04-'05 and Senior Warden in '06, had a similar experience with Von Rosenberg.

"Bishop Von Rosenberg visited with the Network Commission in the spring of '05 and made it clear that any association with the networks (AAC or ACN) was not allowed by the Episcopal Church and by the Diocese of East Tennessee. He didn't publically threaten the Commission, but he made it clear that he would not tolerate the presence of a Network parish in his Diocese. When asked how the conservative voice was to be heard in the Diocese of East Tennessee, he said the Networks were not the way to go about it. We tried several times to pin him down, to no avail. When asked if an article could be published in the Diocesan Newsletter, he said no, if it pertained to the Networks. In a private meeting afterwards, he threatened to remove me from office, and the whole Vestry, if we tried to take Ascension into a Network.

"In the May '06 meeting mentioned earlier in this article, we had planned to have a round-table discussion with the Bishop, the Senior Warden (me), and the Interim Rector, Mervyn Dunn. The Bishop was told of the agenda ahead of time. When the meeting started, Von Rosenberg took the microphone and began asking those in the audience to express their concerns. It was soon obvious that the Bishop and the liberal parishioners had planned to hijack the meeting, and it quickly became a 'Get Hank and Ron' event.

"It was the most un-Christian experience I had in my 20 years at Ascension, and the Bishop led it. There was no effort on his part to reconcile the two views; instead, he led a lynching. It is my opinion that in spite of his words to the contrary, Bishop Von Rosenberg is a company man and will do as 815 says in South Carolina."

Dr. Susan Ridgell (Ph.D.), who served on the vestry at Ascension for seven years and later as senior warden, said she was not surprised that Charlie VonRosenberg had been tapped to serve as TEC's Bishop of South Carolina. "He has been faithful in upholding TEC's progressive direction in recent years, or at least that was my experience of his years as Bishop of East Tennessee. TEC can count on him to be a loyal company man," she told VOL in an e-mail.

"My surprise was that Charlie was described as having led, in East Tennessee, '... a measured approach and a focus on reconciliation and relationship,' according to a recent ENS press release. The same presser also claimed he was 'noted for putting a priority on pastoral sensitivity and responsiveness, especially to clergy, their families and churches.'

"I personally experienced his lack of such qualities with the more orthodox oriented communicants at the largest church in the East Tennessee Diocese (Church of the Ascension).

"A number of such church members were coldly dismissed again and again at a large, standing room only parish meeting at Ascension on May 29, 2006. During the meeting, those who were liberally minded about the church's direction were given much time to speak against those with traditional views. The Bishop presided over the meeting and smiled as those who were liberal, raised their voices and said unkind things. Many of us were dazed, as it was so difficult to comprehend that the Bishop could not only allow such behavior, but actually show that he approved of it, facilitate it, and lead it.

"During that meeting, I asked the Bishop numerous times, during an extended Q&A session, how traditionally minded church members could express their views, since he said he would entertain discussion of traditional views but would not approve of the AAC's operation in the Diocese. Again and again, he refused to answer my question, until he finally addressed the question with this: he told me that he would make sure that the Diocesan website would soon include a place for traditionally minded opinions to be expressed."

I was incredulous, Ridgell told VOL. "A website? That's how we will have discussion and work toward reconciliation?" He replied, "Yes, you can freely express your opinions on the website."

Ridgell said that to her knowledge, the website did not ever include such an option. "Many of us deeply yearned for conversation about the conflicts, sought true reconciliation, and to openly discuss traditional views without being disrespected; to answer this plea with 'send it to the website' was an insult, to say the very least."

Bishop vonRosenberg convened a public forum on the topic of the theology of same sex relationships during 2005. Ridgell wrote, "It was held at the Episcopal School of Knoxville, and was attended by several hundred people. There were about five or six progressives on the forum, and one token traditionally minded person. It was a stacked forum, and the message was clear: get with the progressive program, or consider that you are not in line with the theological thinking in the Diocese. It was a sad day."

Ridgell noted there were many sad days like this. Von Rosenberg was a master manipulator. "I did not want to leave the Episcopal Church. I loved it, and for many reasons. But it left me. I grieved, and at times, I still grieve. So much hurt. I still have friends at Ascension, and because I have business colleagues who I respect but who believe differently, my comments here are the truth, and they were my experience. We can only hope and pray that, as our British friends say, 'the truth will out.'"

Ridgell concluded by saying that Bishop vonRosenberg wanted to lead a progressive Diocese, which East Tennessee has become during the last ten years. It may be a fit for TEC and those who are happy to remain in TEC in South Carolina for him to lead them. "Please don't be misled by thinking that he builds relationships with those with whom he disagrees, or that he is a reconciler and sensitive to those who believe differently. This was simply not my experience with him, nor was it the experience of many in the East Tennessee Diocese who hold traditional beliefs."


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