Church Court Criticizes Florida’s Bishop & 2nd Election

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

Howard denies having a pattern of anti-LGBT discrimination

By Kirk Petersen

Amid a scathing report from a church court questioning the integrity of the process, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Florida intends to seek the broader church’s approval of its second election of the next Bishop of Florida.

A Court of Review has found what it says are significant deficiencies in the November 19, 2022 election, in which the Rev. Charlie Holt was declared the winner on the first ballot. He had been declared the winner on the third ballot at a previous election in May. If his election as bishop coadjutor is upheld, Holt would become the ninth Bishop of Florida when the Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard retires later this year. Howard, who has led the diocese since 2004, will reach the mandatory retirement age of 72 on September 8.

The standing committee responded in a letter to the diocese, vowing to “continue fighting to uphold your right to choose our next bishop,” and saying the episode “presents a danger to every bishop and diocese in the Episcopal Church.”

The report and response reflect a sharp escalation of conflict in a diocese where same-sex marriage continues to be a divisive issue. The report also paints a picture of a sitting bishop who for years has allegedly sought to exclude LGBT priests from exercising ministries in the Diocese of Florida, despite church canons forbidding discrimination because of sexual orientation. Multiple priests in the diocese have reinforced this allegation in interviews with TLC in recent days.

Joe Gibbes

The Rev. Joe Gibbes, president of the standing committee, pushed back hard on allegations that Howard sought to exclude priests who disagree with him from voting in the election. Gibbes said he believes “probably a majority” of priests in the diocese oppose Howard’s stance on sexuality. “If John Howard’s aim all along has been to … defend our diocese for conservatives, let me tell you, he has done a terrible job,” Gibbes told TLC.

Holt referred all questions to Gibbes. Howard’s canon to the ordinary, the Rev. Allison DeFoor, provided written responses on his behalf to questions sent by email. “Bishop Howard does not seek to exclude gay priests from employment or canonical residency in the Diocese of Florida. There were gay priests in the diocese when he became bishop, and others have been ordained and hired during his episcopacy,” DeFoor wrote.

Under the canons of the church, the court has no authority to validate or invalidate the election. To become a bishop, Holt must receive the consent of a majority of all bishops diocesan and of diocesan standing committees. The prospect of that is uncertain at best, given that Holt prevailed in the clergy order by only a single vote, and the court found that “multiple clergy who were otherwise entitled to vote in the election were denied that right due to disparate treatment in the granting of canonical residence.” The court’s report will be distributed to the bishops and standing committees along with the solicitation of consent.

Gibbes said he expects to make the formal request for consent within a few days, which will begin a 120-day window for responses. If a majority of consents are not received by that deadline, the election will be declared null and void.

Allison DeFoor

Seeking consents is risky. Holt and Howard both hold to the traditional church teaching that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman. More than 90 percent of the bishops who lead dioceses are on the other side of the issue. So is the church’s General Convention, which in 2018 approved Resolution B012, mandating that same-sex marriage rites be available in every diocese where the practice is legal under civil law.

Persons who are elected bishop nearly always receive the necessary consents. An exception occurred in 2019, when Joseph Kerwin Délicat failed to receive consents to become Bishop of Haiti. In that case as in this one, objections focused not on the candidate himself, but on allegations that the outgoing bishop had improperly manipulated the pool of voters.

Holt has said repeatedly that he supports the compromise in B012 that creates a mechanism for bishops opposed to same-sex marriage to invite another bishop to oversee such marriage rites. The objections filed with the court of review do not overtly focus on Holt’s conservative views, but rather on allegations that Howard skewed the results by disqualifying progressive priests who should have been eligible to vote. “Our interviews suggest a pattern and practice of LGBTQ clergy and those who opposed the Bishop’s stated views not being treated equally with similarly situated clergy in the securing and exercising of their rights to ordination, licensing and the granting of canonical residency,” the court stated.

DeFoor flatly rejected this contention. “Bishop Howard has never denied canonical residency to anyone who disagreed with him on issues of marriage upon the basis of such disagreement. The vote in the clergy order at both bishop elections in 2022 should make it clear that Florida is home to clergy with a wide variety of positions on marriage. In fact, my own theology has no objection to same-sex marriage, and that is also true of a number of other lay and clergy, at the highest levels of leadership in the diocese.  It is simply not a litmus test.”

Some other parts of the court’s report were more favorable to the bishop and the diocese. Opponents raised five objections to the election, and the court considered each individually. It dismissed two of the objections as harmless or irrelevant, and said a third objection was troubling but inconclusive regarding its effect on the election.

Another objection dealt with the way lay delegates were allocated based on the size of the various congregations in the diocese. After a complicated analysis, the court found fault with the allocation process, labeling it “fundamentally unfair” and saying some legitimate lay delegates may have been disenfranchised. “The court cannot state conclusively whether the addition of these delegates would have changed the outcome of the election; we can state that this disenfranchisement casts a shadow over the election process.” Holt received 79 lay votes in the November election, well above the 67 needed.

But the court repeatedly emphasized that the alleged disenfranchisement of LGBT and supporting clergy could have affected the outcome of the election. “Given that the asserted candidate-elect only secured the majority needed in the clergy order by one vote, the potential impact on the election of denying the right to vote in at least three instances is plain.”

The court described its findings in a 33-page report (accompanied by 156 pages of exhibits) dated January 31, 2023. The report was distributed on February 17 by the diocesan standing committee, along with a letter that was harshly critical of the court. “We believe the Court has grossly overstepped its charge, committed a number of significant factual errors, shown canonical disregard throughout the objection processes, and operated in a way that intentionally attacks and disenfranchises the will of the majority of the Diocese of Florida,” the committee wrote.

The committee also declared that the court should have confined its examination to the procedures on the day of the election, and had no authority to assess the bishop’s governance prior to the election. “The Court found no irregularity in the voting conducted on November 19, 2022,” the committee wrote. “But, ranging far beyond its mandate, it speculated — based on a faulty grasp of diocesan policies and practices — on how a number of anonymous allegations — reported so vaguely they cannot be independently verified — might have affected the outcome of the balloting.”

Or as Gibbes said more succinctly, the allegations against Howard amount to “running a Title IV allegation through a Title III process.” Under the canons, Title IV concerns disciplinary actions against bishops and other clergy, while Title III governs a variety of processes related to ministry, including the election of bishops.

The allegations of discrimination raise the specter of potential disciplinary charges against Howard, although no charges have yet been filed. In 1994, before Howard became a bishop, the General Convention passed a change to the canons stating “No one shall be denied access to the selection process for ordination in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities or age, except as otherwise specified by these Canons.” The provision subsequently was expanded and reaffirmed, and is now Canon III.1.2.

Despite the committee’s description of vague, anonymous allegations, some of the allegations were specific, and not all were anonymous.

The report cited the Rev. Ted Voorhees, a recently retired priest who agreed that the court could identify him. The report says that when Voorhees ” first entered the Diocese and informed the bishop diocesan that he had performed same-sex blessings in his former diocese, he was told that he would not be permitted to perform such blessings in the Diocese of Florida and would not be permitted to become canonically resident in the diocese. He further alleges that he was instructed that he would be required to apply annually for a license to exercise his ministry and that his license was subject to revocation at any time. The clergy complied by never seeking canonical residence during his subsequent 14 years of ministry, serving as the vicar of a congregation in the diocese.” Voorhees also told the court he was explicitly threatened with losing his license after he voiced “disappointment” with the bishop’s 2015 declaration that he would continue to forbid same-sex marriages in the diocese.

“I contend that past and present discrimination against LGBTQ+ clergy has had a material impact on both elections,” the Rev. Elyse M. Gustafson wrote in a letter to the court that was attached as an exhibit. She described the experiences of eight priests who said they either were denied employment because they are in a same-sex relationship, or who were employed only after taking a vow of perpetual celibacy with no possibility of marriage. She added that the priests “would like to remain anonymous to the public but are willing to speak directly with the court if requested.”

“The inevitable consequence of these discriminatory practices is that queer clergy either 1) do not request residence because of unsafe conditions; or 2) leave the diocese altogether even when their preference is to stay,” she wrote. Gustafson, who is an assisting priest at Church of the Good Shepherd in Jacksonville, declined to be interviewed by TLC.

In a telephone interview with TLC, Voorhees, who has retired with his wife to Albuquerque, New Mexico, described Howard as consistently hostile and uncommunicative to clergy who did not share the bishop’s views.

After B012 required traditionalist bishops to create a process so that “all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access” to same-sex marriage rites, Voorhees said, Howard held a clergy conference where he told priests interested in conducting same-sex marriages that they would have to bring their wardens to a meeting and “look me in the eye and say that you will not take my spiritual direction. I will look you in the eye and say I love you, but I’m no longer your bishop in this matter.”

DeFoor pointed out that when a similar comment was reported in 2021, a priest in the diocese who had conducted a same-sex ceremony spoke in support of the bishop. “He just wanted to hear from the wardens,” said the Rev. Louanne Loch, rector of St. Paul’s by the Sea in Tallahassee, in 2021. “He and I disagree on this one thing, but we have a good relationship.”

Voorhees said that during his 14 years as vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in St. Augustine, the city experienced two severe hurricanes. “I never heard a word from him. He did not call to say, how’re things going for you? How about people in the parish? How did the church survive?” One of the duties of a bishop diocesan is to serve as pastor to all clergy in the diocese.

In addition to Voorhees, some of the priests and lay people who are cited anonymously in the report spoke with TLC on the record, alleging that Howard discriminates against LGBT people and is often hostile and uncommunicative to people who do not share his views.

  • Randall Sartin retired early as rector of Church of the Advent in Tallahassee after a confrontation with Howard, sparked by Sartin allowing two gay, seminary-trained parishioners to preach while he was on sabbatical in 2017. He said the two parishioners were told by the bishop’s office not to preach again, and that he was summoned to a meeting with Howard after he cut short his sabbatical to respond to the controversy. “He got upset with me for an hour,” Sartin said, and then the bishop said “why don’t you retire, you’ve got 30 years.” Sartin agreed to retire, but alleged that Howard “tried to mess with the severance package.”
  • One of Sartin’s parishioners who preached, Pierce Withers, sought to become a priest in the diocese after previously being ordained as a non-denominational minister. He told TLC that Howard refused to meet with him to discuss his potential call to the Episcopal Church. Withers is described but not named in Exhibit 14 of the report, where he reported being told by the canon to the ordinary that he would not be ordained in the diocese, and he should seek ordination “up north.” Withers now lives and worships at an Episcopal church in California.
  • Laura Lane is a lay person who facilitated a discussion with Howard at St. John’s Cathedral in 2015 or early 2016, as recounted in an appendix that the court chose to redact. She said “I remember clearly him saying that he would not hire openly gay clergy,” a statement that made her uncomfortable enough to look away from his face.
  • Susan Gage is a priest and partnered lesbian who started discernment for the priesthood in the Diocese of Florida. She said after she met with Howard in 2013, the bishop told her, “while you might have a call, we have a rule in the diocese that we don’t ordain people who are partnered and gay.” Gage now serves as priest-in-charge at St. Barnabas Episcopal in Valdosta, Georgia, and is canonically resident in the Diocese of Georgia.

“It may be helpful to understand that these allegations span a number of years, during which both canon and civil law have changed significantly,” DeFoor wrote. “In 2013, when the Rev. Gage spoke with Bishop Howard, same-sex marriage was not legal in the State of Florida or in the Episcopal Church. In the ten years since then, both civil and canon law have changed significantly, and Bishop Howard has always complied with the laws and canons in effect at any given time.”

If Holt does not receive the necessary consents, the Standing Committee automatically would become the ecclesiastical authority upon Howard’s retirement. The committee then would likely select a provisional bishop to serve for a defined period of time while the diocese regroups. Some conservatives have suggested that the goal of the election opponents is to run out the clock so the Church Center can install a liberal bishop. But Gibbes said the Standing Committee would interview two to three candidates, then present one candidate to a special diocesan convention for an up-or-down vote.

Complicating the situation is the fact that after the first election, Holt was hired as a priest on the diocesan staff. This was done while the challenge to the election was pending, and opponents said it was an improper attempt to give Holt an advantage over the other candidates in the second election. The court said the hiring was “not prudent,” but “we cannot conclude whether this position gave the asserted candidate-elect any material advantage in the second election.”

The 14-member Court of Review includes four bishops, along with other clergy and lay people, several of whom are attorneys. The members are:

  • Ms. Laura Russell, Esq., President
  • Sra. Grecia Reynoso, Esq.
  • The Honorable Rev. Rodney Davis, Esq.
  • Dr. Delbert C. Glover
  • Ms. Sharon Henes
  • The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld
  • The Rev. Deacon Lisa Kirby
  • The Rt. Rev. Phoebe A. Roaf
  • The Rt. Rev. Kathryn Ryan
  • The Rev. Canon Carrie Schofield-Broadbent
  • The Rev. Christopher Wendell
  • The Rt. Rev. Frank S. Logue
  • The Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, Esq.
  • Canon Julie Dean Larsen, Esq.

The Diocese of Florida has been a longtime participant in the Living Church Foundation’s partner program. 

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