Opinion: Preserve the Big Tent

The Rev. Joe Gibbes in the nave of Church of Our Saviour, Jacksonville, which he leads as rector

By Joe Gibbes

In 2003, the Diocese of New Hampshire asked the Episcopal Church, “Don’t we have the right to elect the bishop of our choosing?” and the church’s answer was “Yes, you do.” Now, nearly 20 years later, the question before bishops and standing committees is, “Does the Diocese of Florida have that same right?” The answer should be a resounding yes.

The debate over Florida’s election of the Rev. Charlie Holt as bishop coadjutor has turned into an international Episcopal spectacle, with incredulity being expressed on all sides. But while the circus has kept the church media busy, it has distracted attention from the central question in this matter: Does a diocese have the right to elect a bishop who pledges to follow the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church who, at the same time, holds conservative theological positions? At least twice in the last year, in the dioceses of Springfield and Central Florida, the church has answered this question with a yes, but our situation in Florida has been, well, special.

I hasten to point out that the recent report from the church’s Court of Review found no fault with our election procedures. This is because the Standing Committee and chancellor of the diocese put extraordinary measures in place to assure that the election we held on November 19 was fair and valid. We put these extra measures in place specifically in response to the Court of Review’s admonitions after our May election. We brought in a highly qualified professional parliamentarian to ensure our parliamentary procedure was correct; we contracted a canon law professor to ensure we were following local and Episcopal Church canons; and we even hired two CPAs to count delegates and ballots. Procedurally, our election was as clean as it gets.

In fact, the court dismissed outright three of the five objections raised by just over 10 percent of our convention delegates (29 of 237). Unfortunately, the court then raised speculative questions about two other objections, fueling suspicion about the integrity of our election. Its questions about these two objections would have been easy to explain if the court had given the diocese the opportunity to respond before completing its report, but it did not.

First, the objectors claimed that certain clergy were denied a vote through the withholding of canonical residency, but we can easily show that none of the clergy they named qualify for canonical residence in the Diocese of Florida. This is not because of their sexual orientation, their theology of marriage, or their views on human sexuality, but because they moved to the diocese without cure, or they were ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and not to Episcopal orders. More to the point, not a single one had presented Letters Dimissory.

Florida’s standards for canonical residence are the same as or similar to those in many Episcopal dioceses across the church. And, as my colleague the Rev. Canon Miguel Rosada, a candidate in both of our elections, has made clear, had the Rev. Holt not been elected among the clergy on the first ballot in our November election, he would certainly have been elected by comfortable margin on the second.

Second, the court’s claim that duly elected lay delegates were disenfranchised is unfounded and is particularly puzzling because it criticizes procedural changes that resulted entirely from the Standing Committee’s determination to follow the court’s guidance in its review of our first bishop election in May 2022. The court stated it was unable to determine whether the absence of these delegates had any effect on the outcome of the election. This makes it seem that the court didn’t do the simple math. In fact, if all 11 delegates “lost” by our following the canons had been present, and all 11 voted for another candidate, Fr. Holt still would have won the lay order on the first ballot.

What the Court of Review did do, however, was use its review of the election, authorized under Title III of the Canons of the Episcopal Church, to float Title IV disciplinary allegations of discrimination against our bishop, the Rt. Rev. John Howard. Predictably, the bishop’s critics have seized on these allegations, and the media have even called the election a “sideshow.”

The question of whether there has been a pattern of discrimination against LGBTQ people in the Diocese of Florida cannot be ignored, but neither is it properly addressed through a review of our election process. And because the allegations were leveled by a court with no Title IV obligation to share evidence or hear testimony from the accused, the court of public opinion has, in some quarters, already tried and convicted Bishop Howard. It does not help that the court and the media have sought to judge every accusation against current canons of the Episcopal Church, and not against the canons in place at the time of the alleged events.

If standing committees had to show an unblemished report card for the sitting bishop to be permitted to elect a successor, no diocese would ever be able to elect!

There is no doubt that the Diocese of Florida is experiencing a difficult season, and that some clergy and lay leaders feel as though they have been historically marginalized. That pain and frustration have fueled conflict that must be resolved, so that our diocese may return to the gospel work to which God has called us. To heal the hurts in our diocese, and to strengthen our relationship with the Episcopal Church, we must press on with a new bishop — one who is a good fit for the Diocese of Florida, and who is willing to work with the wider church to lead all sides toward healing, unity, and mission.

I am not alone in believing that the Holy Spirit has raised up Fr. Charlie Holt for this particular moment in the Diocese of Florida. His work alongside Black Christian communities in Sanford, Florida, after Trayvon Martin’s murder ,and his work with English-as-a-Second-Language programs in Houston are among the many experiences he brings that can move our diocese to the place God is calling us.

Bishop-elect Holt is a faithful Episcopalian who is traditional in his views on marriage, which is consistent with the views of much of our diocese; yet he has demonstrated a consistent eagerness to work with and learn from those with different views and backgrounds on this and other important issues, to work against racism in the communities where he serves, to engage God’s mission within the Episcopal Church, and to be the bishop of all the people of the Diocese of Florida.

With all of this in mind, I don’t mind sharing that the dual uproars over Bishop-elect Holt and Bishop Howard have my heart in knots. This is a crucial moment for the future of our beloved diocese. I am praying that this is the moment the Episcopal Church will reclaim its vocation of being a big tent — one in which people can have differing theological understandings, and yet still come together honestly and respectfully to worship Jesus in unity. Can we still be a denomination with the Christian humility to be bound by common prayer across our different contexts and understandings? Will we bear witness to the world about how the growing pains of a diverse community can be lived out in a Christian way? Or will the Episcopal Church decide it must purify itself of those who can’t get with the program?

I grew up, met Jesus, and heard a vocational call to ordained ministry in a big-tent denomination called the Episcopal Church. In 2003, the church put its stake in the ground and said it was still a big tent. Two decades later, I pray we will do the same.

The Rev. Joe Gibbes is the rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Jacksonville, Florida, and president of the Standing Committee in the Diocese of Florida.


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