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Florida Bishop Election Nullified as Consent Period Ends

By Kirk Petersen

The clock has run out on the consent process in the Florida bishop coadjutor election, and the Rev. Charlie Holt, who twice was declared the winner at election conventions, fell short of the necessary endorsement by the broader church.

Bishops generally are elected by local dioceses, but no bishop can be consecrated without obtaining the consent of both a majority of diocesan bishops and a majority of diocesan standing committees. Holt obtained neither, the Florida Standing Committee announced on July 21, the end of the 120-day consent period. Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry announced the same outcome separately.

Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard reaches the mandatory retirement age of 72 on September 8, and must resign by that date.  Curry must accept the resignation and declare it effective by a date certain, not longer than three months after the resignation. “In the coming months, plans will be made to celebrate Bishop Howard’s 20-year episcopacy in the Diocese of Florida,” the Standing Committee wrote. He was elected bishop coadjutor in May 2003, and consecrated November 1. He became the eighth Bishop of Florida on January 29, 2004.

Through a spokesperson, both Holt and Howard declined to be interviewed.

The Standing Committee will become the ecclesiastical authority upon Howard’s retirement, and will have to decide what comes next. “Over time, we will discern how our path forward might be best served by an assisting bishop with unique gifts that would be helpful to us, by a new bishop search process, or by asking the diocesan convention to elect a bishop provisional for a limited period,” the committee wrote.

Holt faced two huge obstacles. The first was an organized effort by local and national LGBTQ groups to scuttle his election. Holt, like Howard, holds the traditional view that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, and Holt did not help himself with some of his early statements on the topic. He ultimately apologized in a video message for having spoken “in a way that was hurtful and offensive to many people.”

The sexuality issue alone might have been enough to sink his chances, despite his pledge that he would do nothing to stand in the way of any priest or church who wished to marry a same-sex couple. More than 90 percent of Episcopal bishops support same-sex marriage, and support is widespread among clergy and lay leaders. However, conservative bishops have quietly gained approval in the adjacent Diocese of Central Florida, in January, and in the Diocese of Springfield (Illinois), in early 2022.

But Holt’s fate probably was sealed by challenges to the election process. In February, a church court essentially accused Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard of rigging the pool of voters by discriminating against LGBTQ priests: “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 findings meant that liberal bishops and standing committees who might have been willing to let a conservative diocese elect a conservative bishop could withhold consent without passing judgment on Holt’s theology.

It is hard to overstate the emotional ordeal this has been for the Jacksonville-based Diocese of Florida. The Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, former Bishop of El Camino Real and an accomplished mediator, “is helping us plan an intentional process of listening to one another,” the Standing Committee announced in June. Gray-Reeves declined to comment on the process.

The election of a new diocesan bishop typically inspires celebration and a sense of renewal. Clergy and lay delegates from every church gather at a special convention after a discernment process lasting more than a year. They cast however many ballots are necessary to decide which good and godly candidate will lead the diocese on the next stage of its journey. The winner says a few excited words by telephone or video link, there’s a raucous round of applause, and even the voters who backed a different candidate know they’ve been part of an important event.

At some point the voters are told or reminded that the election won’t be final until a majority of diocesan bishops and standing committees give their consent — but whatever. All of the clergy and some of the laity know to expect a routine announcement of consent within a few weeks. Why would people from outside want to overrule the discernment of the diocese?

In the Diocese of Florida, the opposition came from both inside and outside. During the walkabouts, Holt made some tone-deaf comments about Black and LGBTQ people, and opposition started swirling on social media. In addition to concerns raised within the diocese, prominent Episcopal author Diane Butler Bass, a Virginia resident, criticized Holt in a tweet to her tens of thousands of followers.

Less than two weeks after Holt’s first election in May 2022, the diocese reported that a formal objection to the election had been filed, alleging irregularities in the election. The objection was signed by more than 10 percent of the voting delegates, which triggered a rarely used canonical process mandating a review. In August, an ecclesiastical court declared “the Convention lacked a quorum in the Clergy Order and should have immediately adjourned without action.”

Holt withdrew his acceptance of the result, clearing the way for a new election. But by then, in a controversial move, the diocese had hired Holt to a new role on the bishop’s staff. Holt moved his family from Texas to Florida.

A second election was held in November, and Holt again was declared the winner. A court review again was triggered through an objection — and this time the outcome was explosive. The court cannot directly nullify the election — but as events have made clear, it can have a profound effect on consents.

In a scathing report, 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 added: “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.”

However, the vote was not as close as that implies, because Holt far outpaced the other candidates in the three-way race. He received support from 56 clergy, while the Rev. Beth Tjoflat got 31 votes and the Rev. Miguel Rosada got 10. (An additional 14 ballots were counted as “spoiled” because clergy members voted for all three candidates — thereby making it harder for Holt to reach a majority without actually voting against him. A simple abstention would have been meaningless.)

If Holt had fallen short of a majority in the clergy order, there would have been a subsequent ballot — and Tjoflat would have needed to nearly double her vote total to catch up. Rosada said he would have dropped out after the first ballot, and he believed most or all of his 10 conservative supporters would have gone to Holt, giving him a comfortable majority.

The Standing Committee pushed back hard against the court report, accusing the president of the court of having a conflict of interest. In one of the bluntest passages in the rebuttal, the committee wrote: “The Court of Review has demonstrated that it was gathering evidence to support the objections, but never sought evidence from those supporting the election. It often ignored evidence contrary to its final report. In so doing, the Court acted with bias and forfeited its role as a neutral institution. This precedent should be a concern to every bishop and diocese in the church.”

Many bitter words were spoken during the months of conflict, but the concession statements from the committee and from Holt were models of Christian charity. “We are asking that you please join us in praying for our diocese and for one another,” the committee wrote. “We also ask that you pray for the Holt family as they find a way forward that looks very different from the one they had planned.”

“Despite the chaotic nature of church politics and clashes of individual interests, the Lord’s purposes will always prevail,” Holt wrote. “For our part, Brooke and I plan on staying and supporting our diocese, if you will have us, as there is much work to do, and this is our home.” For now, he has a job on the diocesan staff, and if that goes away under a future bishop, his support within the diocese could develop into a rectorship.

The Diocese of Florida has been a long-time financial supporter of the Living Church Foundation.

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