By Kirk Petersen
Battle lines have been drawn and trenches are being fortified in the Diocese of Florida, in a struggle with ramifications well beyond diocesan borders.
Some readers no doubt will think it’s inappropriate to discuss God’s church in such militaristic terms. They may be right. Unfortunately, the metaphor fits quite well.
The confrontation began with a dispute over whether the Rev. Charlie Holt should become a bishop, even though he has twice been declared the winner in elections for the office. Despite a steady drumbeat of opposition, the diocese vows to press onward, even as it falls back to regroup.
“Both the Standing Committee and the Rev. Charlie Holt are resolute in the decision to ask for consent to the November 19 election,” the committee said in a letter on the diocesan website. The letter asked the diocese for patience as the committee musters its defenses against a church court report that questioned the integrity of both the election and of the sitting bishop, the Rt. Rev. John Samuel Howard.
“Given the circumstances we know we can’t just ask for consent in the usual way. We must find a way to make our case to the Standing Committees and Bishops of the Episcopal Church in a way that is clear, concise, confident, and canonically sound. They must understand our context and our challenges, and understand why the majority of the Diocese of Florida believes that the Rev. Charlie Holt is the priest God has called to lead us at this fractured time.” Under the canons, no bishop-elect can be consecrated without getting the consent of a majority of diocesan standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction.
A few hours before the Florida Standing Committee posted its letter, a group of ethnic caucuses in the churchwide House of Deputies released a statement calling on Holt to withdraw, or to be denied consent. The group also said Howard should retire immediately “and allow the Diocese of Florida to seek healing and reconciliation among itself through the appointment of a Provisional Bishop.” The statement was signed by leaders of the Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Indigenous Caucus, and the Latino Caucus, acting collectively under the banner Deputies of Color.
Two LGBTQ support groups — one within the diocese and one from the broader church — previously issued statements with similar intent.
Detailed statements in support of Howard have been harder to find, given the communication constraints of the church court proceedings, which fall more heavily on participants than on observers. But one senior priest told TLC of a seething anger among people in the diocese who believe the process has been grossly unfair.
“The diocese wasn’t allowed to call any witnesses, wasn’t allowed to respond to accusations,” said the Rev. Matt Marino, rector of Trinity Episcopal in St. Augustine, Florida. “I thought the Court of Review was slanted and biased.”
Marino was referring to a scathing court report that accused Howard of a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against LGBTQ clergy that may have improperly kept at least three such clergy out of the voting pool. Because Holt prevailed in the clergy order in the November election by only a single vote, and because he and Howard both oppose same-sex marriage, the court said the outcome might well have been different if the LGBTQ clergy were permitted to vote. Howard has denied the allegations of discrimination.
Holt has repeatedly vowed that if he becomes bishop, he will adhere to the church’s policy that same-sex marriage rites should be available in every diocese where the practice is legal under civil law.
Marino was a member of the search committee that nominated the slate of candidates. Some election opponents have alleged that specific plausible candidates were excluded from the slate to set up a win for Holt. Marino declined to comment on that issue, saying under the protocols of the search committee it would be improper for him to either confirm or deny.
But he had plenty to say on other matters, and warned that the opposition to Holt may backfire. “There are a lot of people in the diocese that are really frustrated,” Marino said, and they may decide “hey, if they’re going to do this to the nice conservative, we’re going to go find a hardliner.” Marino said he does not personally want to perform same-sex marriages, but has “no problem” if other priests do so. A majority of his own parishioners take a more conservative stance, he said.
“I don’t think Charlie Holt’s a homophobe,” Marino said. “I think it’s easy to see why people would think John Howard’s a homophobe, because he doesn’t allow dialogue. We don’t sit around and have conversations and the airing of grievances.”
Marino continued, “Charlie wants to have conciliatory dialogue. Charlie sees conversation as being essentially productive. But Charlie’s a trained mediator. John Howard is a trained prosecutor. He’s not going to have witnesses introduce things into evidence that could be tainted or twisted.” Before seeking ordination, Howard, a graduate of Wake Forest School of Law, served in North Carolina as both a federal prosecutor and as a public defender.
Despite some of his critical comments, Marino emphasized that he strongly supports his bishop, and believes the allegations against Howard are specious. “This is this has got star chamber written all over it,” he said.
Both Marino and the Standing Committee have accused the Court of Review of seeking to sabotage Holt’s election by abruptly releasing the report, making it difficult to respond effectively to the 33 pages of narrative and 156 pages of exhibits. “As complex as the issues would have been surrounding the report itself, the purportedly accidental leak of the report and subsequent media storm have amplified the complexity and fragility of the situation considerably,” the committee said.
Marino was blunter. “The court leaks the document early. … They put it online, they call the objectors and tell them where it is, the objectors put it on Facebook, and [soon] my youth director has seen it and my bishop still hasn’t. The entire process has gone like that.”
Laura Russell, president of the Court of Review and an attorney and lay leader from the Diocese of Newark, responded to an inquiry from Episcopal News Service by saying the court had mistakenly posted the report online based on procedural confusion, “under the impression that the findings had been circulated more broadly by the presiding bishop’s office.”
“Once the court learned it had not yet been circulated fully, it was removed from the site,” the Court of Review said in the statement provided by Russell to ENS. “Once the court receives confirmation that the report has been fully circulated by the presiding bishop’s office, the court will fulfill our commitment and responsibility to make it fully accessible to the greater church.”
It’s already fully accessible to anyone with a browser. The Standing Committee posted it on the diocesan website to facilitate a rebuttal.
The committee has pushed back in broad terms against the report, but said “any response we release to the Diocese will automatically become part of the wider conversation. Therefore, we have made the decision to release all of the necessary communications together at a date that is surely near, but yet to be determined.”
Under Canon III.11, the 120-day consent process should begin “immediately” after the election. However, the process was put on hold under a different part of the canon after more than 10 percent of the voting delegates filed a formal objection, leading to scrutiny by the Court of Review.
The Standing Committee told the diocese, “We will be in touch again soon as we finalize our plans to begin the consent process.” The canons appear to be silent on how long the diocese can wait to begin the 120-day consent clock after a disputed election.
Holt faces an uphill battle. He appears to have the support of at most a bare majority of the clergy in the diocese. He has stronger support among the laity, receiving 60 percent of the votes of lay delegates in the November election.
Separate Courts of Review have found fault with both electing conventions. The issue in the May 2022 election was a relatively innocuous dispute over whether clergy attending by Zoom could be counted toward a quorum. The court said no, and that the convention should have adjourned without voting.
But after the second election, the court accused the bishop of essentially rigging the vote by improperly excluding LGBTQ clergy from the voting pool. Howard denies the court’s allegations of bias, which are based primarily on the accounts of anonymous testimony. Most of the identities of “Priest #1” through “Priest #12” are widely known within the diocese, and detailed rebuttals can be expected.
Unlike the 2020 presidential election, which was decided by tens of thousands of votes in multiple states, the Florida bishop election hinges on a single vote in the clergy order. If the court’s allegations are correct, it’s quite plausible the election would have gone the other way. Thus, to grant consent, bishops and standing committees must not just express confidence in Holt’s suitability for the office. They must also express confidence that the Court of Review is wrong.
Howard, who reaches the mandatory retirement age of 72 in September, faces ending his career under a cloud, and possibly under Title IV disciplinary action. As previously reported, the threshold for launching a Title IV investigation is extremely low, and has apparently already been cleared by a call for such an investigation by an LGBTQ support group in the diocese. The court did not explicitly call for disciplinary action, but said: “We find 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.” Canon III.1.2 clearly forbids any form of discrimination on the basis of sexual identity, among other factors.
In addition to Howard and Holt’s travails, the Diocese of Florida faces a long-term effort to recover from bitter factionalism.
The broader church faces what many will see as a referendum on whether there is any room at all for conservative theology in the Episcopal Church. Some activists no doubt are thrilled at the prospect of purging the episcopacy of bishops with a traditional understanding of marriage. (The absolutists on the other side left the church long ago.)
But the Episcopal Church has for centuries been the champion of via media — “the middle way.” In recent years, church leaders have focused on “communion across difference.” If those concepts mean anything at all, people with strong opinions must move beyond mere tolerance of those with differing views. There is no middle way without space on both sides.
Disclosure: I have personal ties to two members of the Court of Review and to the court’s legal advisor. I have not discussed this matter with any of them.