Church Court Casts Doubt on Diocese of Florida Election

The Rev. Charlie Holt | Zoom screen capture from May 2022 interview

By Kirk Petersen

An ecclesiastical court has found merit in procedural objections raised after the May 14 election of the Rev. Charlie Holt as bishop coadjutor in the Diocese of Florida, and it may become necessary to hold a new election.

Holt was scheduled to be consecrated October 8, but that was put on hold after objections were filed by at least 10 percent of the delegates to the electing convention, in accordance with Canon III.11.8. As bishop coadjutor, he would serve alongside Bishop of Florida Samuel Howard until the latter’s retirement in late 2023, at which time Holt automatically would become bishop diocesan.

Bishop Samuel Howard | Diocese of Florida photo

In apparent anticipation of a favorable outcome, the diocese took the unusual step of putting Holt on the payroll as a priest at the beginning of August, despite the review process. The diocese announced that “he will primarily focus on enhancing and expanding the diocese’s prison ministry; supporting local Episcopal schools; helping to plan the future of the diocese’s camp and conference center; and, supporting other programs.”

Holt and diocesan leaders did not respond to requests from TLC for comment about the Court of Review.

Since the May 14 election, there has been an organized effort by LGBTQ people and allies to block Holt’s consecration. This has proceeded on two tracks: the process objections considered by the Court of Review, and petitions to diocesan standing committees to withhold consent based on Holt’s opposition to same-sex marriage, as well as on some race-related comments he made in walkabouts.

For example, a petition to the Episcopal Church in Connecticut read in part: “Withholding consent is a stand against white supremacy, homophobia, and bigotry. Nowhere in the Church should these systems of oppression be allowed to flourish. Please consider the statements of the bishop-elect of the Diocese of Florida as a disqualification to be a bishop of the Church.”

The Court of Review findings dealt solely with the challenges to the process, and mentioned Holt’s name only to say that he had been interviewed. The 33 pages of findings, along with nearly 50 pages of attachments, can be found at the bottom of this article. The finding is dated August 2, and was circulated to the diocese on August 15.

The problems arose after the diocese realized, based on advance registration, that there would not be a quorum of clergy present at the May 14 electing convention. Under diocesan rules, “The quorum required for the election of a Bishop shall be two-thirds of all Clergy entitled to vote and two-thirds of all Lay Delegates entitled to be members of the Diocesan Convention.”

Faced with the prospect of postponing the election, diocesan leadership decided two days before the convention that provisions would be made for clergy (but not lay delegates) to participate remotely, via Zoom. This action was taken by the standing committee, bishop, and chancellor of the diocese despite previous declarations to the contrary. In originally announcing the electing convention, the standing committee said: “We take this opportunity to reiterate that there is no provision for remote or proxy voting. Delegates must be present at the Special Convention to vote.”

The objectors made 38 allegations of irregularities in the election process, many of which The Court of Review found meritorious. The most clear-cut finding addressed the lack of a quorum.

After reviewing diocesan canons and Florida law, and interviewing more than 50 people involved in the election, “the Court finds that on May 14, 2022 when the Convention was gaveled to Order with only 90 Clergy Delegates present in the room — the Convention lacked a quorum in the Clergy Order and should have immediately adjourned without action. Any action taken that day in the clear absence of a clergy quorum is null and void.”

However, the bishop who oversees bishop elections for the Church Center told TLC that the Court of Review does not have the authority to nullify an election; its role is to investigate and issue an opinion. The Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley said the final outcome is in the hands of the standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction of the various dioceses, more than half of whom must consent to a bishop’s election before any bishop can be consecrated.

Ousley said that within the next few days, once some paperwork is completed, the Court of Review findings will be sent to the standing committees and diocesan bishops, along with a request to consider giving consent. That starts a 120-day consent period, which will conclude in mid-December.

If the election receives the necessary consents, Ousley said Holt would be consecrated on January 7, 2023 — a date that was set after it became clear that the objections would preclude the original October 8, 2022 consecration date.

If the election does not receive the necessary consents, the Diocese of Florida would determine how to proceed, with advice from Ousley’s office. “They’ve got a full range of options, and there’s pros and cons to any of those,” he said. Options would include appointing a provisional bishop; quickly scheduling another election with the same candidates; or taking time to discern how to proceed, in which case the standing committee would be the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese after Howard’s retirement.

One option that is not available is for Howard to postpone his retirement; he will reach the mandatory retirement age of 72 on September 8, 2023.

There is no obvious reason to conclude that the irregularities affected the outcome. In a candidate field of five, Holt was the clear front-runner in both orders on each of the three ballots taken. The Court of Review said “It is impossible to predict whether the outcome would have been different if the Convention was postponed to ensure the Diocese’s own procedures” were followed.

In an interview with TLC shortly after the election, Holt said that while he did not support same-sex marriage, he pledged to abide by the terms of Resolution B012, the 2018 resolution that requires bishops opposed to same-sex marriage to designate another bishop to oversee such weddings.

In a video posted by the diocese after the objections were raised, Holt said: “While my traditional beliefs on marriage are known, I’m committed to leading faithfully according to our church’s enacted canons. Parishes and rectors in the Diocese of Florida who choose to offer same-sex marriages will have them.”

He also addressed the fallout to some tone-deaf comments he made during one of the walkabout meetings introducing the candidates. An anonymous YouTube channel posted a three-minute video clip in which Holt described the enthusiastic welcome he received at a Black church, where the pastor invited him to come forward and address the congregation — based solely on seeing Holt’s clerical collar.

“You know, if I saw an Episcopal priest sitting out in my congregation, and it was a white priest, I wouldn’t usher him up — much less, you know, a Black pastor I didn’t know. Who knows what he would say, right?” Holt said on the walkabout video.

In his video message to the diocese, Holt said his comments were “clumsy,” and said, “if any of you experienced my words as hurtful and less than Christ-like, I ask your forgiveness.” He said he was describing the extensive work he did with Black religious leaders in Sanford, Florida, after the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting. Holt at the time was rector of nearby St. Peter’s Church, and described forming close bonds across racial lines with community pastors.

He linked in the video notes to letters from the “faith leaders of Sanford, Florida, whom I worked with during the Trayvon Martin tragedy. These leaders remain dear friends, and they want you to know of my commitment to racial justice, mutual understanding, and Christian solidarity.”

In one of the letters, the Rev. Lowman J. Oliver, pastor emeritus of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, wrote: “Because Rev. Charlie Holt has demonstrated to me to be a scholarly man and most important to me a man who possesses a love of God, repentant sprit, remorseful spirit, forgiving spirit and humble spirit, I have no hesitation as a Black clergyman to support his consideration for Bishop.”

Findings of the Court of Review for Diocese of Florida Election With Exhibits by Kirk Petersen on Scribd

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