By Kirk Petersen
People find their way to the Episcopal Church by many different paths. For the Bishop-Elect of Central Florida, the path led through a death-metal band called Mansoul.
“I was the lead screamer,” said the Rev. Justin Holcomb, who on January 14 was elected to lead the Diocese of Central Florida, where he has served as canon for vocations for the past decade. Assuming he receives the necessary consents from half of all Standing Committees and diocesan bishops, he will be consecrated as the fifth Bishop of Central Florida on June 10, 2023. The fourth bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gregory Brewer, has led the diocese since 2011, and reaches the mandatory retirement age of 72 on July 6.
Holcomb was ordained in South Sudan, speaks openly of being sexually abused as a child, has written or edited 20 books, supports the church’s compromise policy on same-sex marriage, and is poised to lead one of the most conservative dioceses in the Episcopal Church. He also is a member of the board of directors of the Living Church Foundation, Inc, and a contributor to TLC’s Covenant blog.
But let’s get back to the death-metal band. The four band members all were Christians, and the guitarist’s step-father was an associate rector at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, Florida. Holcomb, a high school student at the time, grew up in a nondenominational, charismatic household, with parents who became Christians in the 1970s Jesus Movement.
Whenever he went to the guitarist’s home to visit or practice, he would pepper the stepfather priest with questions about the structure of the church, about bishops, prayer books, and sacraments. “He gave me my first prayer book, and blew my mind. I mean, I was reading through that, and I was like, ‘this is amazing!'” Holcomb said. “I just didn’t have a context for it.” He started worshipping occasionally at his friend’s church.
Mansoul recorded a 19-minute demo tape in 1993, which was played one night around midnight on a local rock station. You can find the five tracks listed online at a site called Metal Kingdom, along with a very low-resolution photo of the band. Holcomb is the guy with the longest hair, not holding an instrument. “I’m not gifted musically at all. I had really long hair and I could scream loudly,” he told TLC.
Holcomb went on to get a degree at a Florida Bible college, Southeastern University, then attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, where he got two master’s degrees. He was heading toward an academic career. RTS is a nondenominational seminary, but one of his professors in a pastoral care course urged his students one day to visit the Cathedral Church of St. Luke — the cathedral of the Diocese of Central Florida. “You’ll see how much pastoral care there is. The liturgy is not just theology, it’s theology and pastoral care mixed together,” the professor said. “You’ll notice how powerful it can be to repeatedly receive the absolution, and to be welcomed at the Lord’s table weekly.”
Worshiping there refreshed Holcomb’s memories of the excitement he felt years earlier when he first discovered the prayer book. “That’s how I ended up Episcopalian,” he said.
After earning a doctorate in theological studies at Emory University, he landed a post-doctoral fellowship, and later an adjunct faculty gig, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There he met a woman named Lindsey Vardy, who was a case manager at a sexual assault crisis center. She became Lindsey Holcomb in 2006, and within a few years the couple began writing books together, starting with Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.
“The way we shorthand it is, we know about this pastorally, professionally and personally. Pastorally because I’m a pastor. Professionally, because my wife’s a case manager, and I was teaching about this and as a scholar, and all that kind of stuff at UVA, and now in seminars, I teach [about] abuse in the church. And then personally, because when I was a boy, I was sexually abused by a distant family member,” Holcomb said. He emphasizes the word distant, and praises how his parents responded. “The effect was just not as much as it easily could have been for me.”
The Holcombs went on to write a book about domestic violence, and three children’s books, including one geared toward helping children distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touching. Justin Holcomb also has written or contributed to numerous theological books.
While in Virginia, Holcomb was spending one to three months a year in what is now South Sudan, an Episcopal stronghold. (The Episcopal Church of South Sudan is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion, with about twice as many members as the U.S.-based Episcopal Church.) He was training chaplains for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which in 2011 won independence from the overwhelmingly Islamic northern portion of Sudan.
Back home, Holcomb had realized he was drawn more to the church than to the academy, and he entered the discernment process for ordination in the Diocese of Virginia. On one of his trips to Sudan, Bishop Nathanial Garang of the Diocese of Bor said to him, “you keep on coming back and you keep on training all of my priests, I should ordain you.” Holcomb thought he was kidding, but Garang sought and received the blessing of Bishop of Virginia Peter Lee, and Holcomb was ordained in Juba in May 2006 — just months before his marriage in December.
After stints as an associate rector in Charlottesville, and as executive director of a ministry for leadership development in Seattle, Holcomb returned to the Diocese of Central Florida as canon for vocations in 2013.
Central Florida is one of a handful of dioceses led by a bishop who does not support same-sex marriage, upholding instead the Book of Common Prayer definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Until 2018, these bishops had the authority to veto the use of same-sex marriage liturgies within their dioceses. That authority ended when the 2018 General Convention passed Resolution B012, which mandated access to same-sex marriage rites in every diocese where such marriages are legal. The resolution established a mechanism for traditionalist bishops to invite another bishop to provide oversight for same-sex weddings.
At the time B012 was passed, 93 diocesan bishops supported same-sex marriage. Eight were opposed, including Bishop Brewer in Central Florida. As these eight bishops have begun to retire, or otherwise leave the church, the selection of their successors has drawn scrutiny. In 2021, TLC published a diocese-by-diocese assessment of the status of B012 implementation at that time.
Tensions flared in late 2022 in the neighboring Diocese of Florida, where there is an ongoing effort to block the consecration of the Rev. Charlie Holt, who has twice been elected to succeed the Rt. Rev. Samuel Howard. Both men hold traditional views on marriage. Holt’s first election was nullified because of procedural irregularities, and new objections have been raised to his second election, although Holt has repeatedly promised to adhere to B012. Opponents also seek to persuade bishops and Standing Committees to withhold consent.
In that environment, Holcomb was elected in a first-ballot landslide from a field of three, with more than 60 percent support in both the lay and clerical orders. The issue of same-sex marriage was approached delicately in the election, despite a pointed query in the candidate questionnaire. Question 7 asked each candidate to read the portions of B012 that provide access to same-sex marriage rites in every diocese, and to read Central Florida’s Canon XVI, which categorically forbids same-sex marriage. The canon states that clergy in the diocese may participate in “only those unions prescribed by Holy Scripture: the wedding of one woman and one man. Said clergy are forbidden to allow to take place in their cures, officiate at, bless or participate in any other unions.”
All three candidates said, without elaboration, that they would adhere to both measures. TLC asked Holcomb to explain how it is possible to do that. The bishop-elect declined to address specific details of the same-sex marriage issue. He noted that he is entering a consent process where he will be questioned on that topic by bishops and Standing Committees throughout the church, and said he wanted to have those discussions, as well as conversations with the clergy of the diocese, before addressing the matter in the news media.
He did, however, emphasize his support for B012, saying that as a deputy to the 2018 General Convention, he not only voted for the measure, but also supported it in legislative hearings. After the passage, he chaired a diocesan task force — with members on both sides of the issue — to study the implications of B012 for the Diocese of Central Florida.
The final report said “Resolution B012 has removed a portion of the Bishop’s ecclesiastical authority and the implications of that removal are troubling.” It also said, “We implore the church and church leaders in the Diocese to engage the discussion outside the confines of their own positions.”
“The Task Force believes the clergy of the diocese should support the Bishop in his implementation of Resolution B012. His leadership on this issue is essential,” the report said.
TLC reached out to the Rev. Allison Harrity, rector of St. Richard’s in Winter Park, who is the only priest in the diocese who has performed same-sex marriages under the provisions of B012. “I’ve never talked to Justin about the issue,” she said. When asked if she is concerned about his election, she said “I’m concerned about people who want to get married in the Diocese of Central Florida,” or who want to pursue ordination. She expressed neither support nor opposition to Holcomb.
The other candidates for bishop were the Very Rev. Charles “Roy” Allison II, rector, St. James Episcopal Church, Ormond Beach, Florida, and the Rev. Dr. Stacey “Stace” Timothy Tafoya, rector, Church of the Epiphany, Denver.