Objections & Responses in Diocese of Florida’s 2nd Election

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

By Douglas LeBlanc

For the second time, the future of the Rev. Charlie Holt as the elected bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Florida must clear a church court before the House of Bishops or standing committees have any say in the matter.

The objections were filed by 29 lay and clergy delegates — just over the 10 percent (25, in this case) required by national canons.

The 15-member court wrote a measured finding last August, and the arguments in the Diocese of Florida have grown still more byzantine since then. The case concerns five claims by those who objected to the second election, held November 19.

Here is a summary of the objections to the election, and the responses of Florida’s Standing Committee. The objectionsand responses are available in full online.

1. There was a material error in voting not disclosed or discovered until after the election.

Objectors:

The election resulted in one candidate winning with exactly the minimum number of votes in the clergy order.

Two days after the election, the diocese posted a list of those present at the electing convention.

Included on the attendance list was at least one clergy member who did not register and was never present at the electing convention.

Standing Committee:

The objectors assert that there was a material error in voting, but this was not the case. Only qualified voters cast a ballot. Every clergy member present at the Special Convention on November 19 had pre-registered. They were all accounted for, and the auditors from Ralston & Company Certified Public Accountants, whom we retained to provide the highest level of independent scrutiny, confirmed that only those clergy voted.

Regrettably — and this may be the source of the objectors’ confusion — there were three administrative errors on the list of clergy that was published on Monday, November 21. These errors were not replicated on the auditor’s lists of voters. These were honest errors made by the volunteers who checked in delegates at the Convention. During check-in, they accidentally marked as present two clergy who were not there. However, please understand that this had no effect, as no ballots were issued on their behalf. In addition, the check-in volunteers did not mark as present one clergyperson who arrived late and was given her pre-printed nametag and ballot when she arrived. These clerical errors thus had no impact on the count of present clergy conducted by the independent auditors, nor any impact on the integrity of the quorum or vote.

2. Clergy with cure were not granted residency; there was disparate treatment of similarly situated clergy.

Objectors:

Title III, Canon III.9.4(d) of the Episcopal Church Canons requires that clergy with cure present letters dimissory to the Ecclesiastical Authority and that such letters shall be accepted within three (3) months thereafter, unless that clergy person is under investigation for alleged Title IV offenses.

At least eleven (11) clergy with cure, actively working in the Diocese, have not been granted canonical residence as required by the Canons. As a result, these clergy were unfairly deprived of the ability to participate in the November election.

It appears that the Bishop has granted or denied canonical residence to similarly situated clergy on the basis of whether the clergy person shares, or does not share, the Bishop’s views on issues such as same-sex marriage in the Church.

Standing Committee:

It is the opinion of both the Standing Committee and the diocese’s legal team that this point of objection is related to the practice and policies of the incumbent bishop, and not to the procedure of the November 19 election. As a result, it cannot form the basis of an objection under Canon III.11.8(a) of The Episcopal Church, which requires that objections be made to the “election process” and outlines the procedure to be followed.

… The names of 18 clergy persons were offered to us, not by the clergy themselves, but by those expressing dissatisfaction with the election processes in both May and November. Through review of diocesan records and clergy files, dialogue with the bishop and diocesan staff, and conversations with the clergy themselves, we researched diocesan practice and each situation offered to us.

When the objection of November 28 was received, we reviewed each of these situations again and confirmed our original findings. Not one clergy person who met the bishop’s long-held criteria complained to the bishop’s office about their voting standard in advance of the November election, and no clergy person has complained that he or she sought and was denied canonical residence or, as a result, the ability to vote in the November election. In addition, the bishop has consistently followed diocesan practice on canonical residence with a single exception: he granted the sub-dean of the cathedral canonical residency at the urging of the dean even though he had not yet served in his position for a year.

We found no evidence or pattern that the bishop has based any decision to grant or deny canonical residence on a clergy person’s views on same-sex marriage or any other issue. In every case where canonical residency has not been extended, the reason has been situational, not theological.

3. Duly elected lay delegates were denied seat, voice, and vote.

Objectors:

The Diocese imposed a new rule for naming lay delegates in October of 2022, one month prior to the November election, which violated Diocese of Florida Canons for naming lay delegates.

… The new rule announced by the Diocese in October 2022 changed the way Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) was calculated from May (when online attendance counted) to November (when online attendance was disallowed). The change in how ASA was calculated deprived duly elected lay delegates of seat, voice, and vote at the November election. The May and November elections were held just six (6) months apart.

Standing Committee:

Like dioceses across the church, we have been thrown into a quandary by the pandemic when it comes to counting Sunday attendance. For the May election, we had decided to follow the precedent of our 2022 annual diocesan convention and allow parishes to use their pre-COVID numbers to determine their number of delegates for the electing convention. This was a pastoral accommodation to the circumstances and nothing more.

… In short, the diocese enforced to the letter its existing rules regarding the calculation of lay delegates, and it allowed parishes to select replacements in a way that met canonical and parliamentary standards. It did not create or impose new rules.

4. The diocese’s rules were not followed.

Objectors:

The November election was premised on the original call for election of a Bishop Coadjutor (September 13, 2022, call to the election process). By the Bishop’s and Standing Committee’s own statements, the process of the November election was governed by the resolution establishing the original election. The Diocese has failed to follow the basic rules for the November election.

… The authorizing resolution passed by Convention and re-affirmed by the Bishop and Standing Committee requires that the ministry of bishop coadjutor commence by November 5, 2022. This is simply an impossibility, and the Diocese ran out of time to elect a bishop coadjutor under the clear language of 2021-001.

There was no “search profile.” A search profile was required by 2021-001 in anticipation of attracting nominees, either through a search process or by petition. This requirement was not followed.

Standing Committee:

The statements under objection 4 presume that Resolution 2021-001 operates as a binding law, when in fact, the resolution gave permission and latitude to the Standing Committee “to proceed with all such steps as are necessary for an Episcopal discernment process.”

… The Standing Committee regards the profile as one of the aspects of the original election to which there was no objection, and asserts that a matter of three months would not have changed the description of the diocese. During the open petition process, which encourages wide participation in the process, neither the Nominating Committee nor the Standing Committee received any requests to review the search profile, and no candidate names were submitted by petition.

5. The election process was fundamentally unfair.

Objectors:

After the Court of Review published its findings that the May election was “null and void” for lack of a duly constituted clergy quorum, Bishop Howard released a video in which he promised that another election for bishop coadjutor would be held; that he as bishop would be involved in the next election; and highlighting that only one named candidate wanted to be the bishop and would stand for re-election.

Since the May election, the Diocese has publicly promoted only one candidate in the form of press releases and videos introducing only one candidate and his family to the Diocese, distributing these promotional materials across the Diocese, and posting them to the Diocesan website while the election was under protest.

In July of 2022 while the May election was still under protest, the Diocese relocated the preferred candidate and his family to Jacksonville from Houston and hired this candidate to be on Diocesan staff, essentially giving him bishop coadjutor duties.

Standing Committee:

Bishop Howard felt that hiring Fr. Holt was pastorally appropriate, both for the diocese that had elected him, and for the Holt family, whose youngest child was about to begin his senior year in high school. When he was brought on staff, Fr. Holt had been elected as Bishop Coadjutor; he was not a candidate in an upcoming election. The diocese released videos and articles introducing him to its membership. This is not unusual in the church. Once the Court of Review released its findings and Fr. Holt withdrew his acceptance of his election, however, no further videos or introductory materials were distributed.

During his time on the diocesan staff, Fr. Holt has preached and presided only at parishes where he was invited by the rector or wardens, just as any priest might accept such an invitation. The two other candidates, both canons of the diocese whose ministries are supported by diocesan funds, agreed to run again with full knowledge of Fr. Holt’s position on the diocesan staff.

While the church awaits the court’s findings in early 2023, Holt has pledged to work for uniting the diocese:

I am confident that the leaders who oversaw the election will carefully address the process concerns it raises in good order. If my election to be the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Florida receives the required consents, I will strive mightily, as I am striving even now, to reconcile and unify all the people of our diocese without reservation in keeping fully with the wider Episcopal Church.

… Discernment of the calling of God to any ordained office, especially that of bishop, is both a challenging and a humbling teaching process. While it has shown me the breadth of our love and potential, it has also shown me the depth of hurt and frustration in our diocese’s membership. With that revelation, I can say unequivocally there is no divide in this diocese that God cannot heal, no future where we will not see new life from the dead. In humility and grace, our opportunity is to see realized a remarkable community of unity, discipleship, and missionary service.

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