Challenge Raised to Florida Bishop Election

The Rev. Charlie Holt, left, and the man he was elected to succeed, Bishop of Florida Samuel Johnson Howard | Diocese of Florida photo

By Egan Millard
Episcopal News Service

The Diocese of Florida announced May 25 that a formal objection to the May 14 election of the Rev. Charlie Holt as bishop coadjutor has been filed with the diocese.

The objection, signed by 37 clergy and lay deputies to the diocese’s special election convention, claims that last-minute changes to the voting process violated diocesan canons and that technical problems disrupted the vote, rendering the election invalid.

In an email to members of the diocese acknowledging receipt of the objection, its Standing Committee and chancellor responded to the points of contention and denied any procedural errors or misconduct. No objections were raised during the election itself, they said, and the election was observed and confirmed by independent auditors.

“We want to assure you – with the highest degree of confidence – that we believe in the election’s validity from every perspective,” the committee members and chancellor wrote. “We value the input and consciences of our few friends who have objected, and we will do everything we can to follow the proper channels so that their questions and concerns may be answered.”

The Standing Committee and chancellor did not include the text of the objection itself along with their response, and diocesan staff would not provide a copy to Episcopal News Service, citing a desire to follow the canonical process and inform the presiding bishop’s office first. ENS obtained a copy of the six-page objection letter and verified with one of the signers that it is the document that was filed with the diocese.

The May 14 election was held to choose a successor to the diocese’s current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, who intends to retire in late 2023. Upon Howard’s retirement, the bishop coadjutor would become the ninth diocesan bishop. Holt, currently associate rector of teaching and formation at The Church of St. John the Divine in Houston, Texas, was one of five candidates.

Disputed election practices

In their objection letter, dated May 23, the 37 delegates claimed that the required clergy quorum for the election was not met, the agenda was not followed and there were “procedural and technical flaws” that interfered with remote voting.

According to the objection, the diocese in April invited delegates to register for an in-person election at St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, writing: “…the integrity of the election at this Special Convention will require that we pay very close attention to who is present. Therefore, if you do not register by the deadline, you will not be allowed to attend. There will be no exceptions.” However, the objection says, only 89 clergy delegates had registered by the May 9 deadline, below the two-thirds quorum of canonically resident clergy required by diocesan canons. The objection says the required clergy quorum was 116, “as stated by the election officials,” being two-thirds of 174 canonically resident clergy in the diocese.

On May 12 (two days before the election), the diocese said there were not enough clergy registrants for a quorum and announced that clergy who had not yet registered could register to participate by Zoom, but that lay delegates could still only vote in person. Standing Committee President the Rev. Joe Gibbes told ENS that this change “permitted clergy impeded by factors such as COVID-19 risk, travel and emergencies to attend and vote digitally. This option was not offered to laity because unlike clergy delegates, lay delegates have alternates who can attend and act in their stead – where we had strong participation and there was never a question of reaching a quorum [among the laity].”

The objection says that the diocese’s governing documents do not allow for remote voting. Gibbes told ENS that the Diocesan Council and chancellor “ensured that our bylaws permit online attendance and voting, according to Florida law.” He added that an “independent, non-Episcopal audit team” – the Forde Firm of Jacksonville (CPAs) – “was present on the Zoom [election] to ensure voting procedure was in accordance with all relevant laws.”

The objection then says that on the morning of the election, the Diocesan Council changed the rules of order, which the delegates approved during the election. The objecting delegates’ letter says this violated The Episcopal Church’s Canon III.11.1(a), which requires the “adoption of rules and procedure for [such an] election … at a regular or special Diocesan Convention with sufficient time preceding the election … .”

At the beginning of the livestreamed election, the credentials chairman said that 89 clergy delegates were present in person and 29 were attending remotely for a total of 118, “which is more than the two-thirds requirement for a quorum,” but he did not specify the exact number necessary to satisfy the quorum requirement.

There were 138 lay delegates present out of 145, he said.

After the third ballot, Howard announced that Holt received 64 votes from clergy and 80 from the laity. Howard then asked the auditors to confirm the results; one rose to the podium and said the election “had no irregularities in any of the votes or counts.”

The number of voters in the final ballot was 125 clergy and 141 lay, according to the numbers provided by the diocese to ENS. The total number of voters in the final ballot cited in the objection is off by one; it counts one additional lay voter.

According to the objecting delegates, the Zoom voting process did not go smoothly.

“For clergy who were attempting to be present on remote voting, there was no orientation of how to vote, no testing of communications systems, no ‘trial vote’ to test whether all could vote, and in fact, at least two clergy could not see or hear the proceedings,” the objection letter reads. “When voting was taken, in at least one instance, the votes were not registered. Also, in-person delegates could not see nor could they hear the Zoom clergy.”

Objection process

The objection invokes a canonical process that has only been used twice before: in the 2018 bishop coadjutor election in the Diocese of Haiti and in the 2021 diocesan bishop election in the Diocese of Ecuador Central. Under Title III.11.8 in the Canons of The Episcopal Church, an objection may be filed within 10 days of a bishop election by a group of at least 10% of the voting delegates. The objection must be filed with the secretary of the diocesan convention, “setting forth in detail all alleged irregularities.” The canons do not specify what constitutes an “irregularity.”

The objection is then forwarded to the presiding bishop, “who shall request the Court of Review of the Province in which the Diocese is located to investigate the complaint,” according to the current canons. However, General Convention amended the canons in 2018 to replace provincial courts of review (which had primarily handled appeals in clergy disciplinary cases) with a single churchwide Court of Review. That 2018 resolution changed all canonical references to courts of review in Title IV, but not in Title III. The Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, bishop for the churchwide Office of Pastoral Development, told ENS that the remaining reference to a provincial court of review was an oversight and that objections would be referred to the churchwide Court of Review. A resolution to correct the error has been proposed for this summer’s General Convention. The Court of Review has 30 days to investigate and release a report of its findings.

In an interview with ENS on May 25, Ousley said he had not received the letter of objection from the Diocese of Florida. The diocese’s secretary of convention must submit the letter to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s office within 10 days of receiving it.

“When the presiding bishop receives notification of an objection to an episcopal election, it is a top priority of his and his staff to review and make arrangements to transmit to the Court of Review,” Ousley said.

The Court of Review’s mandate is not necessarily to issue rulings on the canonical validity of election procedures, Ousley explained, but to write a report that is then sent to all diocesan standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction. A majority of each group must consent before a bishop-elect can be consecrated.

Comments on race and sexuality

In almost all cases, the consent process is a formality, but besides the objection filed by the 37 convention delegates, Holt’s election is facing additional challenges. Some Episcopalians have voiced objections to Holt’s election on social media, citing Holt’s views on same-sex marriage and statements that they view as intolerant or insulting to LGBTQ+ people and Black people. Some have said they are writing to their bishops and standing committees to encourage them not to consent to the election.

In interviews and Q&A sessions with bishop candidates before the election, Holt has said he holds the view of marriage expressed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer – that marriage is between a man and a woman. Since 2018, as a result of General Convention Resolution B012, same-sex marriage liturgies must be made available to all Episcopalians in countries where same-sex marriage is legal. The compromise resolution also allows bishops who disagree with same-sex marriage to delegate any required oversight of such marriages to another bishop. In a letter to the diocese after the election, Holt said B012 “will be followed and upheld to pastorally support both our progressive and conservative parishes.”

“I will seek a harmonious relationship with the diocese, granting authority for marriages to parish rectors in keeping with the letter and spirit of Resolution B012-2018 and the canons of General Convention,” Holt told ENS in a May 24 email. Holt declined to comment on the alleged voting irregularities, adding, “I do not have anything to offer to that part of the story as I was a candidate and not responsible for the election.”

In the days after the election, Episcopalians from the Diocese of Florida and beyond took to Twitter and posted statements Holt made during the Q&A sessions. An anonymous YouTube account uploaded edited clips of two of Holt’s answers during those sessions, as well as a compilation of his other answers. The description of the account, “Episcopal Bishop Election Info,” reads: “Information for Standing Committees and Bishops to review as they consider whether to give consent to Episcopal elections throughout the church.”

In an answer to one of multiple questions about how he would lead a diocese with diverse views on sexuality, Holt noted a heightened focus on LGBTQ+ issues in America and in The Episcopal church, “and by singularly focusing on one thing, we actually are a little off. And so it’s not to say that those are not important, or those people that are represented by the letters are not important. They are super important. They are children of God who need to be welcomed into the life of our church. We have something to give to them and they have things and gifts to give to us. Don’t hear me wrong. But if that is the only thing that we ever talk about all the time – which, sometimes it feels like it is – then we’re a little sick. Because you can’t talk about sex all the time. That’s not healthy. It’s not healthy for the LGBTQIA people for us to focus on them all the time.”

Holt then appeared to indirectly draw a comparison with his own life and suggested that LGBTQ+ people might “give up” something to follow Jesus, as he did.

“It’s not a commitment that says, ‘I can come in the doors and you have to receive me and accept me just the way I am. And I’m never going to change,’” he said. “I had to give up a lot of things when I became a Christian. I was a frat boy at the University of Florida. And I was not living a godly lifestyle. … Over time, God dealt with the various things in my life that needed to be changed.”

In response to a question about diversity, Holt told a story about when he had previously served in the diocese and was the only white minister at a rally in Sanford, Florida, protesting the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. He said he was initially reluctant to speak and that he did not want to be seen in front of signs saying “Trayvon Martin: A modern-day lynching.” After encouragement from a Black pastor, Holt recalled, he did speak, even though the signs “didn’t quite represent my perspective.”

Campaign to withhold consent

Episcopalians including author Diana Butler Bass objected to Holt’s Q&A responses on Twitter and suggested that they were grounds for withholding consent to his election.

 

One Connecticut priest – the Rev. Melissa Rohrbach – has created an online petition for other clergy in her diocese to urge their standing committee to withhold consent. A clergy Facebook group is keeping a running tally of standing committees they have contacted in a Google Doc.

 

In his letter to the diocese responding to the concerns over his comments on race and sexuality, Holt said his “commitment is to be a faithful pastor to all. I am committed to embracing the diversity that the people of the Diocese of Florida represent.”

Reiterating his commitment to uphold Resolution B012, Holt wrote, “I highly respect those who hold a different view than my own. I have always learned the most from dialogue with those who disagree with me. This is why my first mission as bishop-elect will be to listen, from one end of the Diocese of Florida, geographically and theologically, to the other. I am respectful of the lives, experiences, and opinions of all others, and I hope for the same from others.”

Referring to Trayvon Martin’s killing, Holt wrote, “God used that moment to work change in my life which has served my ministry of reconciliation to this day,” adding that he and a Black pastor started an interracial group called Sanford Pastors Connecting dedicated to racial reconciliation after Trayvon Martin’s killing. One of their ministries was to be “pastoral observers” at the trial of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin.

“It will be my priority as Bishop to lead our diocese in the work of racial reconciliation. This begins with honoring our historic Black congregations,” Holt wrote. “I will encourage all of our congregations to build strong Christian ties with their nearest Black congregation neighbors in other Christian denominations. This is at the heart of what it means to be the Beloved Community.”

On May 25, the leadership of the LGBTQ+ Caucus in the House of Deputies sent a memo to its members and the General Convention Office expressing “grave concern” about Holt’s election. Linking to the YouTube videos of Holt’s Q&A responses – including one in which he described learning about racial injustice in a conversation with a Black pastor that included both Trayvon Martin’s killing and the unsolved killings of other Black men – the caucus leaders wrote, “We decry Fr. Holt’s comments regarding race and racism, which were deeply offensive and objectionable.”

The deputies also wrote that Holt’s promise to uphold B012 “does nothing to ensure even a base level of acceptable treatment for most LGBTQ+ Episcopalians and our allies. Would a Bishop Holt stymie the clergy of his diocese who were in favor of officiating same-sex weddings? Would he prohibit congregations from hiring an LGBTQ+ clergy or layperson?”

“We urge every bishop with jurisdiction and every Standing Committee to sincerely consider these concerns and if necessary request further clarification from Fr. Holt and the Diocese of Florida before discerning whether to offer consent to his election,” the memo concluded.

Once the presiding bishop receives the objection to Holt’s election, it will alter the timeline of the consent process, according to Ousley. It is up to the presiding bishop to determine when to refer the objection to the Court of Review, starting their 30-day investigative period. The normal 120-day period for bishops and standing committees to decide whether they will consent to the election does not start until the objection process has been completed and the Court of Review has submitted its report.

According to the diocese, Holt is scheduled to be consecrated bishop coadjutor in October.

“I welcome the opportunity to speak with any bishop and members of any standing committee if they have questions about my views,” Holt told ENS. “My goal is to bring unity and love to this wonderful Diocese and its people.”

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