Atheist Turned Evangelist To Lead Diocese of Florida

The Rev. Charlie Holt | Zoom screen capture

By Kirk Petersen

He was an atheist frat boy at a party school when he found his way back to church in his junior year. Now he’s a bishop-elect in one of the Episcopal Church’s most conservative dioceses.

The Rev. Charlie Holt, currently a priest at a huge Texas church, was chosen on the third ballot May 14 as bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Florida. The election at Saint John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville means Holt automatically will become the ninth Bishop of Florida when the incumbent, the Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, retires in late 2023.

Assuming he receives the necessary consents from half of the diocesan Standing Committees and half of the bishops with jurisdiction, Holt will be consecrated as bishop coadjutor on October 8, and will serve alongside Howard for about a year.

Holt holds the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and some LGBTQ supporters criticized his election. “What a really sad day for the church,” said the Rev. Sarah Locke, assisting priest at Redeemer Episcopal in Jacksonville, as quoted by the Tallahassee Democrat. She asked her Twitter followers to pray for the LGBTQ community because “the diocese elected another bishop who will not affirm their full humanity.”

But in a 45-minute interview with TLC, the man slated to become her bishop repeatedly asserted his commitment to serve in “communion across difference” with people who do not share his views.

“I’m very mindful that the church is wrestling with how to be inclusive of the LGBT community, and to love those people well, and I want to do that too,” he said. “I think it’s OK for us to be in that tension.”

He said he “absolutely” supports church policy on same-sex marriage, as articulated in Resolution B012. That resolution, passed at the 2018 General Convention, provides that bishops who do not embrace marriage for same-sex couples “shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshiping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites.”

He said four parishes in his future diocese have taken advantage of that resolution, and Howard has arranged for Bishop of Southeast Florida Peter Eaton to provide “delegated episcopal oversight for marriage only.”

Holt believes that previous General Conventions made the right choice in approving same-sex marriage rites for trial use, rather than formally adding the rites to the prayer book. “I think that’s a good way to work through what’s often called a process of reception. You know, if it’s received and becomes widespread, that very often is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work. If it’s not received, then it’s not. But we have to interact on these issues with a lot of charity and grace, and treat each other with Christian love.”

While reaching out with an olive branch, he also does not hesitate to assert his own views. Before the election, he reportedly took the most conservative stance among the five candidates.

“I have a traditional view of marriage,” he told TLC. “The Book of Common Prayer’s language is that marriage is a solemn public covenant between a man and a woman. That’s the teaching I hold to, and I’m committed to that.”

Holt has been affiliated with Communion Partners, an international fellowship of traditionalist Anglicans. Howard is a Communion Partner bishop. “There are conservative parishes that need Communion Partner bishops in dioceses that are more progressive,” he said. “So we need to find that balance and ability to live with one another, and grow together.”

Holt described the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old, as a pivotal episode of his ministry. At the time Martin was shot in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic civilian in a neighborhood watch program, Holt was rector of St. Peter’s in nearby Lake Mary, where he served for 16 years.

At first he didn’t think it was his place to get involved, but his daughter changed his mind. Ashton was 11 at the time, and Holt was dropping her off at school one morning when she pointed to the apartment complex across the street and asked, “is that where that boy got shot?” It was. “When I realized they were talking about it in my daughter’s classroom, I realized I needed to be engaged, I needed to care about this,” he said.

He subsequently had lunch with a Black minister, and “he helped me understand some of the dynamics in the community a little better, and we made a commitment to bring together all the clergy of our county, and invite them on Good Friday to come and pray together.”

About 70 clergy attended, and “there was a really moving moment when all the clergy who were there faced the four walls of the church. And we prayed out, that our witness as a church would say something to the world.” The group ultimately ended up working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s office of community relations, to provide a Black minister and a White minister to serve in tandem as spokespeople for the community as necessary.

Holt attended Episcopal High School in Jacksonville, where chapel services were “a little dull. I became an atheist, actually, when I was in high school, and really rejected the faith.”

He attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, which in recent years has shot up the academic rankings after a long-time reputation as a party school. (U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it in a tie for fifth among all public colleges nationwide.) “I was actually living in the fraternity house, and not particularly living a Christian life,” when a friend invited him to a Bible study junior year.

“I knew I wanted to change, but I was having a hard time doing it. Romans 8 … says ‘the law of the spirit sets me free from the law of sin and death, and there’s no condemnation for those in Christ,'” and after reading that, “for the first time I understood the Bible.”

Holt quickly felt a call to ministry, and enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. “Once I got to seminary, I really didn’t have a church home. I didn’t have a denomination,” he said. Then his roommate took him to an Episcopal worship service, and the liturgy, which he knew by heart from Episcopal High School, touched his soul. He finished his master’s of divinity degree at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, a forerunner of the Episcopal seminary now known as Bexley Seabury.

He has written several books, and says the most significant is a trilogy that has been used by hundreds of churches around the world for spiritual renewal. The books include The Crucified Life, The Resurrected Life, and The Spirit-Filled Life.

Of the five candidates, Holt is the only one who was not a priest in the diocese at the time. The others were:

  • The Rev. Canon Wiley Ammons, regional canon, Diocese of Florida, and rector, Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Jacksonville, Florida;
  • The Rev. Fletcher Montgomery, regional canon, Diocese of Florida, and rector, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Gainesville, Florida;
  • The Rev. Miguel Rosada, canon for Hispanic ministries, Diocese of Florida, and rector, St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal, Jacksonville, Florida;
  • The Rev. Beth Tjoflat, canon for urban ministry, Diocese of Florida, and vicar of St. Mary’s Episcopal, Jacksonville, Florida.

Holt’s previous stint in the state was in the adjacent Diocese of Central Florida — led by another Communion Partners bishop, the Rt. Rev. Greg Brewer. Holt currently serves as associate rector at the Church of St. John the Divine in Houston.

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