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Considering the Consent Process for Charlie Holt

By Michael Hunn

The Episcopal Church is thinking and praying a lot about the Diocese of Florida now that the time has come for bishops and standing committees to give or withhold their consent to the election of the Rev. Charlie Holt to serve as Bishop Coadjutor and then Bishop of Florida. This moment has raised questions, not only about Father Holt, and Florida, but about our canonical process of consent, about what we are doing, and on what grounds we ought to do it.

I want to share my personal wrestling about whether to consent and my understanding of what the consent process is, and offer some ideas about how we might improve it. The question before us now is what might be done to ensure the greatest possible unity in the Diocese of Florida, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.

I know Father Holt. We were in seminary together 27 years ago, but my sending him a draft of this article was the first time we had communicated since then. That he is a child of God with gifts for ministry, who is doing his best to serve God and our church, is always before me. We must always speak and write as though he were sitting in the room with us, for he is.

I begin with an overview of the consent process.

There are two important principles at play when we elect bishops. The Holy Spirit speaks through the clergy and people to identify the person from whom they wish to hear as teacher, the person they wish to care for them as their pastor, the person they wish to follow as their shepherd. But the choice of the clergy and people of the local church is only part of the discernment.

The bishops from surrounding dioceses, those already exercising episcopé, do the ordaining. As they make the journey to the diocese and lay their hands upon the ordinand, those bishops ask the Holy Spirit to make this person a bishop of Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic Church. They welcome the new bishop into the community of bishops, thereby stating that they trust the teaching and pastoring and leadership of this individual, and they also take responsibility to correct that bishop should they stray from the teachings of the Church.

The process of consent, which we use in the Episcopal Church today, is our particular embodiment of this ancient practice in the Church, and one of the few that survives in this way in any church. Our particular way of doing this is not so much a reflection of American democratic practices with origins in the 18th century; it is rather our way of doing what was done, for example, in 374, when the people of Milan called Ambrose to be their bishop by acclamation, shouting his name and refusing any other candidate.

After he hid from the crowd, trying not to be ordained, he was found and finally agreed to serve. But the people could not make him a bishop of the church. Bishops from the surrounding dioceses came to ordain him. We now do this process through the web. And, in recognition of the fact that in our church lay people and clergy work and lead together, standing committees, not just bishops, either consent or they don’t.

Whether to consent is more than a matter of whether the people of a diocese “can have the bishop they want” or not. Withholding consent is not “disenfranchisement,” because the church is not a democracy. By electing a bishop, the people of a diocese are offering that bishop for ordination by the Church. Each bishop is not just a bishop for a diocese; bishops are bishops for the whole Church, and have ministries and responsibilities and relationships beyond the boundaries of their dioceses.

What bishops say, what they teach, how they act, ought to reflect Christ himself and a holiness of life. This is not a political election in which one party or ideology wins and another loses. We must check our political thinking at the door of the church, and remember that what we are doing is the holy business of recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in calling those who are “one with the apostles,” sent by Jesus, to lead the Church whatever may come.

Bishops are human beings, yes. And they are human beings called by God to guide the Church in each generation — ordaining deacons and priests, guarding the faith, preaching the Word of God, teaching the faith, and offering moral guidance by example and by what they say. I do not wish to elevate bishops to a lofty level. Bishops are simply those the Church has chosen to live a particular life, to embody a particular role, and to do particular work. They are entrusted with a specific responsibility. They are accountable to all of us but, first and foremost, they are accountable to God.

Of course this process has often been messy. Throughout history there has been conflict and even war over who was the legitimate bishop of a place. In the fourth century, Athanasius was exiled multiple times for half of his tenure as a bishop. But still, when things go well, the whole Church celebrates the ordination of a new bishop. A new bishop strengthens the unity of the whole Church. And when things do not go well, the bishops have the responsibility of correcting the behavior of the bishop who has gone astray. This is the way it has been for centuries before the Episcopal Church existed.

The particular situation of the Diocese of Florida and the election of Father Holt is complicated, and we must all remember that it is not a simple thing. Two elections have taken place, and each has met objections. The Court of Review has upheld some of the objections in both. But the court’s opinion does not nullify a particular election. It simply provides information for bishops and standing committees to consider as they decide whether to consent.

Given all of the tension, and all of the commentary on social media, I want to remember that ultimately this process must unite us all as the Church. Bishops have historically been given the title “pontifex,” which means “bridge-builder.” This is central to our task. We are symbols of unity within our diocese, connecting the diocese to the rest of the Church, and connecting today’s Church with the Church in every generation before it, and bearing the responsibility to guard the historic faith as we have received it.

One question before us today, with respect to the election in Florida, is what might be done to preserve the unity of the Church. Will whoever is elected bishop unify the Diocese of Florida? Will this bishop maintain and deepen the unity of the Diocese of Florida with the Episcopal Church? Will this bishop help to deepen the unity of the Episcopal Church with the wider Anglican Communion? These are the actual questions in every episcopal election, but this particular election, with all of its controversy, has made the truth of every election more evident.

In the next part of this series, I will “discern out loud” and give my reasons for and against consenting to Father Holt’s election.

The Rt. Michael B. Hunn is Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t help but think if these “tests” for consent had been fully applied in 2012, the Diocese of South Carolina would have been spared, at least for a while, the schism which caused much anguish, vitriol, and great financial loss through seemingly unending litigation. I have never understood why the bishops gave consent to Mark Lawrence. His actions and words were known from his time in San Joaquin.

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