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Opposing Views on the Contested Bishop Election in Florida

The May 14, 2023 print edition of The Living Church, currently in the mail to subscribers, contains the following opposing viewpoints about whether bishops and Standing Committees should consent to the election of the Rev. Charlie Holt as Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Florida. The magazine also has a version of an article previously published online with background information about the controversy.  

The Diocese of Florida has been through a lot in the last year.

First, an election was determined “null and void” due to lack of clergy quorum. Then, a second election was “not in compliance” and “not in conformity” with diocesan canons, irregularities that “cast doubt on the integrity of the election process” in both lay and clergy voting. All of this was discovered, analyzed, and reported on by a churchwide independent body. This investigation was done by people the entire church elected. This was done without acrimony or fighting; it was accomplished through an orderly, church-sponsored process.

Isn’t that enough?

But out of all of this came something much deeper than a flawed process or violated canons. This last year uncovered a stark reality that some of us already knew: the Diocese of Florida discriminates against LGBTQ+ people.

Now it’s a gospel matter for the entire church.

The 120-day process for bishops and standing committees to vote has begun. It’s in your hands now. So let me speak clearly: you should not consent. Florida needs you to help us address our problems.

I experienced firsthand the discrimination against LGBTQ+ clergy that the Court of Review vividly described in its report. As a priest in a same-sex relationship, I have been ignored, dismissed, silenced, belittled, unfairly restricted, disparaged, and excluded. Meanwhile, a culture of fear and intimidation makes these injustices impossible to challenge.

Over the years, I discovered I am not alone in this. I heard story after story of degradation, humiliation, and shame. Ten of us offered our facts to the court. Several mistreated affirming clergy shared stories of their own. Still others are either too scared or too hurt to come forward. The pattern and practice of discrimination is systemic, it is devastating, and the court outlined it clearly.

Florida needs an intentional process for listening, truth-telling, and reconciliation. But the question is simple: can a genuine reconciliation process — with all the trust and vulnerability it requires — take place under the episcopacy of someone whose authority is derived at least in part by silencing and exclusion?

Regardless of what one thinks of the bishop-elect personally or his views or his promises about the future, this one fact cannot be avoided: you cannot be an agent of reconciliation if you are the beneficiary of harm.

How could LGBTQ+ people accept the authority of a bishop we were systematically prevented from having a hand in choosing? How could we trust a listening process that has, at its starting point, the determination that LGBTQ+ voices do not matter?

For a reconciliation process to have a chance, Florida needs a provisional bishop, someone who stands outside all that has taken place over the last year — all the hurt and pain and mistrust — and has no desired outcome other than the health and well-being of the diocese.

Our Standing Committee says that consenting will hold the diocese together, but really, consenting will only guarantee its continued division. The Standing Committee says that the court was biased or unqualified, but the court revealed that the real bias is here at home. The Standing Committee says that Florida should not have to conform to churchwide norms or values, but if that’s the case, then what is the point of all this?

We are either a part of the Episcopal Church or we’re not.

In the six years I have lived in Florida, I have been deeply hurt by diocesan officials. But I have also been considered, defended, vouched for, celebrated, thanked, cared for, and protected by dozens of priests throughout the diocese, more LGBTQ+ and affirming Episcopalians than I could ever count, and by the parish I am proud to serve.

There is goodness here, even for LGBTQ+ people. There is reason to hope. There is a chance we just might begin to hear each other. But we need the church to help.

Should Florida elect its own bishop? Of course. But not like this. We need time. We need space to build trust. We need someone who can give voice to the voiceless and tend to the wounds of the brokenhearted. The person to lead that effort cannot be the one who benefited from the wounds.

Florida has been through a lot this year. LGBTQ+ people and those who stand with us have been through a lot. If there is any hope for reconciliation, we need the 109 bishops and standing committees to give us the time and space for healing. Only then will we be able to effectively welcome new episcopal leadership.

We need your help. Please.

The Rev. Elyse M. Gustafson is an assisting priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Jacksonville, Florida.

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.

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’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.

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. 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.

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. Bishop-Elect Holt is that bishop, and I am not alone in believing that the Holy Spirit has raised him up for this particular moment in our diocese.

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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