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.”