[Episcopal Church in South Carolina] Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg of South Carolina has welcomed a returning member of the clergy back into good standing as a priest, hailing the reinstatement of the Rev. H. Dagnall Free, Jr. as an important day for The Episcopal Church and an encouraging step toward reconciliation in South Carolina.
On Tuesday, in a brief liturgy led by vonRosenberg, Free reaffirmed the vows he took at his ordination in 2010 and signed a formal declaration promising to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church.
Free was a priest serving at St. John’s Episcopal Church on John’s Island in 2012, when a breakaway group under Bishop Mark Lawrence announced it was leaving The Episcopal Church. After the schism, a number of clergy remained with The Episcopal Church. However, Free stayed at St. John’s, which followed the breakaway group under Lawrence.
Yet in the eyes of The Episcopal Church, he remained under vonRosenberg’s authority. Over a five-month period in 2013, the bishop made efforts to contact each breakaway clergy member. In most cases there was no reply. In August 2013, with the advice and consent of the Standing Committee, the bishop formally removed Free and more than 100 other priests and deacons from the ordained ministry.
“After clergy left The Episcopal Church, I had the obligation to discipline them according to church canons,” vonRosenberg said. But the canons gave him a choice about which disciplinary procedure to follow. One option would be to “depose” clergy who did not recognize the Church’s authority. VonRosenberg chose instead to “release and remove” the clergy, which left open a possibility for reconciliation and eventual reinstatement.
“I chose the less severe option in hopes that occasions like this one today might be facilitated,” the bishop said. “We rejoice when that goal becomes realized – even one person at a time.”
The first step in that journey came in April 2014, when Free came to see vonRosenberg to ask if there was a path open for him to return. The bishop’s immediate answer: Yes.
But the very first step was a difficult one: He had to acknowledge that he had been removed as a priest in The Episcopal Church. He became “Mr. Free,” stopped wearing his clerical collar, and ceased to perform the duties of an ordained minister. “He was under that discipline, and he was faithful to that,” the bishop said.
Canonically, the only requirement for reinstatement was the bishop’s approval. But vonRosenberg said it was important to ensure that reinstatement was the right move – not only for one priest and one diocese, but for the church. “He’s a priest of the whole church, not just South Carolina,” he said.
Creating a process
A major hurdle involved Free’s personnel files, which are in the possession of the breakaway group that still controls the pre-2013 diocesan records. Officials there have refused to cooperate with any of the Episcopal Church clergy who have sought access to their professional records for their ongoing employment.
Working in consultation with the Standing Committee, Chancellor Tom Tisdale, and Commission on Ministry member Amy Webb, the bishop set forth a reinstatement procedure that required:
– Consulting with the Bishop on a regular, ongoing basis;
– Working with a development coach for evaluations and discussions about his spiritual journey;
– Cooperating with the administrative staff in rebuilding his professional file, including background checks, training certificates, references and other documentation. “Doing that was necessary for the protection of the whole Church,” the bishop said.
– Meeting with the Standing Committee to discuss his desire for reinstatement.
On September 11, having completed the initial steps, Free met with the Standing Committee. After a brief discussion, the committee unanimously approved a motion advising the Bishop in favor of reinstatement.
VonRosenberg said the process has proven to be a good one, and likely will be used again. Discussions are occurring with other clergy who have had second thoughts about the schism. “It’s important that they know that this process is available,” the bishop said.
When the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church meets in 2015, it likely will consider a resolution about reinstatement procedures, and South Carolina’s experience will be valuable to that discussion. “Once again, we’re on the leading edge in some ways,” vonRosenberg said.
The path ahead of Free still has its challenges. He is no longer employed at St. John’s. VonRosenberg and Archdeacon Calhoun Walpole, the deployment officer for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, are assisting him in finding opportunities in Episcopal churches. Free and his wife Sallie are parents of two teenagers, and staying employed was one factor in his choice to remain at St. John’s when the schism took place. Another factor was that he enjoyed serving the people of that parish, and there were others as well. But Free told the Standing Committee that he does not offer them as excuses. “I made a mistake,” he said.
“Part of what I had to learn is that you can’t take anything for granted. God will teach you, and re-teach you,” Free said on Tuesday.
Free said that it seemed far from coincidence that the readings of the Daily Office this summer included the stories of Moses, Joshua, and finally Job. “It’s been kind of like walking through a desert,” he said. “But I think we’re through that now.”
Walpole, who was present for the reinstatement liturgy Tuesday, said Free’s experience reminded her of the words of a prayer for the Church found in Eucharistic Prayer D, which asks God to “reveal its unity.”
“Here we have an example of that unity today,” she said. “Even though we don’t always act like it, the reality is that the church is one.”
— Holly Behre is director of communications for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.