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Florida Standing Committee Fires Back at Court of Review

By Kirk Petersen

The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Florida has launched an aggressive effort to salvage the disputed election of the Rev. Charlie Holt as the next Bishop of Florida, calling out by name the president of the church court that criticized the election, and arguing that her leadership of a progressive group opposed to Holt should have disqualified her.

The committee’s 12-page rebuttal, posted March 22 on the diocesan website, amounts to a full-throated attack on the findings, methods, and perceived motivations of the Court of Review. The committee challenges the court’s central accusation of a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against LGBTQ clergy and allies, by providing names and explanations for a dozen clergy who the court characterized, mostly anonymously, as having been improperly denied the right to vote.

“The Court has no canonical accountability against its own inherent biases, and in this case went to great lengths to seek information in support of the objectors without commensurate effort to hear any response from the accused diocese,” the committee wrote.

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.”

Rebuttal focuses on the role of the court president

Laura Russell | Photo from LinkedIn

The committee’s response comes more than a month after the 14-member court prematurely released a blistering report accusing the Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, the current Bishop of Florida, of years of excluding or marginalizing clergy who disagree with his conservative views. Laura Russell, a lay leader from the Diocese of Newark who served as president of the court, posted the 184 pages of narratives and exhibits on its website within a day of distribution of the report to diocesan officials. Russell told Episcopal News Service that the posting was a procedural misunderstanding, and that the report was taken down promptly when the error was discovered. But by then, it had been downloaded and circulated widely throughout the Episcopal Church.

“Even if it was a mistake, this action was a clear violation of the canon that Ms. Russell stewards, and it led to a rush to judgment against the Diocesan leadership before we could issue a response, or even digest their lengthy report,” the committee wrote.

The committee also argued that Russell should not have participated in the Court of Review because she “serves as the convener of The Consultation. This group has issued a disparaging letter maligning the fitness of the Rev. Holt to serve as a bishop.”

“I am not the chairperson for The Consultation, and I have not been for a while,” Russell told TLC. “The court had full disclosure and discussion of any and all possible conflicts, and everyone participated in the decision.”

She said the court may issue a fuller response because “No one person has more sway than any other.”

The Consultation, founded in 1985, is an umbrella group of progressive Episcopal organizations, including the Union of Black Episcopalians, Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Trans Episcopal, and several others. The storied LGBTQ activist group Integrity USA, which has essentially collapsed, was a charter member of The Consultation but formally withdrew in 2022. Russell is listed on the website as co-coordinator of The Consultation, representing the Episcopal Network for Economic Justice.

The 2,500-word Consultation letter calls on bishops and standing committees “to make careful discernment before voting to consent to the consecration of Charles Holt.” The June 2022 letter opens by raising concerns about a societal environment of “white nationalism, attacks on vulnerable groups, and on democracy itself,” as well as racism and homophobia — but stops short of explicitly accusing Holt of any of those things.

The committee continued: “We acknowledge that a footnote on the letter states that Ms. Russell was not party to the letter. This is not how recusal works. One does not withdraw from a group’s statement so that one can judge; one withdraws from judging because of one’s association with the group making the statement. This constitutes a direct and material conflict of interest which was not disclosed to the Diocese of Florida.”

Members of the Court of Review are elected by General Convention, and the members then elect their own president, according to Canon IV.5.4.

Allegations of unfair process

The Standing Committee, caught flat-footed in February by the unexpected release of a long and complicated court report, initially issued statements disagreeing with the court in general terms and pleading for patience while developing a detailed rebuttal.

Now the rebuttal is out, and it pulls no punches. In addition to the pointed criticism of the president of the Court of Review, the Standing Committee asserted that the court:

  • Exceeded its “clear and limited mandate” to assess the validity of the November election and focused on “diocesan activities reaching back many years, activities which had no direct effect on the ‘election process'”;
  • Gave “every credence” to anonymous complainants, “while elected and appointed Diocesan officials testifying under affidavit were discredited as unreliable”;
  • Denied repeated committee requests for an opportunity to present evidence, and disregarded a long, written response to the allegations;
  • Raised speculative questions without reaching decisive conclusions. The committee tells the bishops and standing committees, “we assert that these questions were raised simply to facilitate your doubt about our election”; and
  • Unfairly maligned a long-serving bishop nearing retirement, and attempted “to allege Title IV [disciplinary] charges through this Title III [ministry] process, which ought to be related solely to the episcopal election.”

Rejection of “pattern and practice” findings

The heart of the court’s criticism was an allegation that the diocese had “a pattern and practice of disparate treatment of certain clergy based on their sexual orientation, marital status, or expressed views concerning the rights of LGBTQ clergy.” The court’s report describes the situations of several priests, most of them anonymous.

In its rebuttal, the Standing Committee discussed a list of a dozen priests in Exhibit 9 of the report who were working at parishes in the diocese but were not canonically resident, and thus not entitled to vote:

  • One of the priests is canonically resident and did in fact vote.
  • Two are Lutheran pastors who, while eligible to serve in Episcopal churches, are not eligible to vote in Episcopal conventions.
  • Six others never presented “letters dimissory” authorizing their transfer from one diocese to another. The court said it had identified “several clergy who did not present letters dimissory because they felt it would be a futile exercise given the climate as alleged.” In other words, these clergy ensured they would not have canonical residency because they did not make the attempt.
  • One priest resigned prior to the election and moved to Colorado.
  • One was a retired bishop who said “my canonical residency, if I have one, is in the House of Bishops.”
  • One had moved from a diocese in Australia that does not use letters dimissory

The committee focuses especially on one priest, saying the court “built much of its case about the alleged pattern of discrimination in our diocese on the testimony and investigative work of the Rev. Elyse Gustafson, a part-time bi-vocational priest not resident in the Diocese of Florida who has long opposed Bishop Howard.” The committee accused the court of “regarding the undeniably biased and anonymous testimony she solicited as verified without giving the Diocese a chance to respond.” She is one of the six priests who had not presented a letter dimissory.

Gustafson is an assisting priest at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Jacksonville who also works as a financial advisor. The church is in the Diocese of Florida, but Gustafson is canonically resident in the Diocese of Chicago.

TLC contacted Gustafson and read parts of the rebuttal to her. She said she would have no immediate comment. Russell said the court had received a memo from Gustafson, but “we did not rely on her for investigatory purposes.”

Background on objections to the Rev. Charlie Holt 

The Standing Committee released its rebuttal as it formally requested consent to Holt’s election. No person can be consecrated a bishop in the Episcopal Church without the consent of a majority of standing committees and diocesan bishops. Such consent usually is granted routinely, but opponents to Holt’s election have organized a campaign urging that consent be withheld.

Opponents object to Holt because he holds the traditional view that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Holt repeatedly has pledged to comply with the letter and spirit of church policy, which mandates that same-sex marriage rites must be available in all dioceses where such marriages are legal, and that there may be no discrimination against LGBTQ priests or persons who wish to become priests. He renewed this pledge in a letter submitted along with the request for consent.

“Parishes and rectors that choose to offer same-sex marriages will be free to do so in accordance with the approved liturgies and canons of the Episcopal Church. Pastoral care and episcopal oversight of all congregations will remain with me. Congregations that perform same-sex marriages will no longer be required to have Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO), and generous pastoral support will be provided to any clergy and congregations that may request it in keeping with Resolution B012,” he wrote.

B012 is the resolution in which the 2018 General Convention established a process to allow conservative bishops to sequester themselves from involvement with same-sex marriages by delegating limited oversight of such marriages to a bishop from outside the diocese. The process creates expense and inconvenience for congregations who wish to perform same-sex marriages, and Holt appears to be saying he will waive the process and permit same-sex marriages despite his personal beliefs.

This is a marked contrast to the approach of Bishop Howard, who complies with B012 but has erected significant barriers to the process. According to multiple sources, priests wishing to perform a same-sex marriage have to bring both of the parish’s wardens to a physical meeting with the bishop, and look the bishop in the eye and acknowledge that they were defying their bishop.

Two elections, both disputed

The Diocese of Florida elected Holt twice in 2022, in May and in November, and both elections have been disputed. There is a strong presumption that dioceses should be able to elect the bishops they want, and many bishops and standing committees might be inclined to let a conservative diocese have a conservative bishop. So while allegations of homophobia and racial insensitivity have been leveled at Holt, the objections that have gained traction have focused on alleged irregularities in the election process.

When the May election was challenged, a different Court of Review found that the electing convention was held without an in-person quorum in the clergy order, and that the convention should have adjourned without voting. The court has no authority to approve or nullify an election, but the relatively innocuous and straightforward finding could torpedo the consent process, so Holt withdrew his acceptance and called for a new election.

But the challenge to the November election had a more explosive outcome. The court’s 33-page opinion, backed by voluminous exhibits, essentially accused Howard of rigging the voter pool to benefit the candidate he favored.

“The evidence received by the Court describes both perceived and real patterns of functioning by Diocesan leadership currently and over significant periods of time,” the court wrote. Holt achieved a majority in the clergy order by a single vote in November, and the court described three specific cases of clergy “who we find can establish a sufficient connection to their alleged denial of canonical residence and their right to vote in this election.”

The committee rejected the characterization of Howard, saying “there are many” clergy who have been granted canonical residency despite disagreeing with the bishop’s theological positions, and that “he has cultivated a diverse diocese with a variety of theological opinions on a range of topics, including human sexuality.”

And while Holt won the barest of majorities in the clergy order, he was far ahead of the other two candidates. The third-place candidate, the Rev. Miguel 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 on the second ballot, giving him a comfortable majority.

In addition to the dispute over voting in the clergy order, both the court and the committee made detailed assertions about an allegation that 11 lay delegates were improperly excluded from voting because of procedural changes in how delegates were distributed among the churches. “Ultimately, the objection is irrelevant,” as the committee stated, because the vote in the lay order was more lopsided than in the clergy order. Even if 11 more lay delegate votes were added to a different candidate, Holt still would have handily secured the necessary majority.

Uncertain prospects in the consent process, and beyond

The Standing Committee’s formal application begins a 120-day window for considering whether to consent to Holt’s election. If he does not receive consent from a clear majority of bishops diocesan and diocesan standing committees, the election will be nullified. Howard reaches the mandatory retirement age of 72 in September, and if there is no bishop in place, the Standing Committee would become the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese. The committee would then have to decide whether to hold yet another election, or to appoint a provisional bishop.

Holt already is working for the diocese. In a controversial move, Howard hired him as a priest on the diocesan staff while the first election was being adjudicated, and Holt moved his family from Texas. If he does not receive consent to be bishop, he faces an uncertain future.

If he does get consent, he will face formidable peace-making challenges within the diocese. In apparent anticipation of that, his letter seeking consent has a very different tone compared to the combative rebuttal by the Standing Committee. He makes careful, restrained efforts to differentiate himself from Howard, who for months will continue to be his boss.

“The first years of my episcopacy in the Diocese of Florida will require some careful mediated listening across the diocese with all members — especially members of the Union of Black Episcopalians, people and clergy of color serving in the diocese, and members of the LGBTQ community who have felt excluded from previous conversations,” he wrote. The racial opposition to Holt is based on some admittedly insensitive comments he made before the first election.

“Nothing in this long election process in the Diocese of Florida has pained me more than knowing that during the meet and greets last year, I spoke in a way that has made people question the commitment to racial reconciliation and racial justice that is so central to my life and ministry. I am sorry for the hurt that I caused to people who have seen the edited mashup video of my clumsy remarks, and I am working hard to do better at talking about painful and important issues of race and racism,” he wrote.

Holt was a priest in Lake Mary, Florida, in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed in nearby Sanford by a civilian in a neighborhood watch program. He described working to defuse tensions by working closely with Black pastors in Sanford — some of whom have written letters praising Holt’s involvement.

Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, who is vice president of the House of Bishops, is working with the diocese to develop a multi-year “structured listening process that will allow us to hear all voices, build trust in the diocesan culture, and allow us to articulate our deep need for reconciliation,” Holt wrote. Gray-Reeves, perhaps the church’s most prominent trained mediator, is the retired Bishop of El Camino Real in California.

Holt also is an experienced mediator. “My training as a peacemaker and Christian conciliator fosters a desire in me to create a place where mutual respect can allow people with diverse views and values to have communion across difference,” he wrote.

Disclosure: I have personal ties to Laura Russell, to another member of the Court of Review, and to the canon attorney who advised the court. I have not discussed this article with any of them. My colleague Douglas LeBlanc contacted Russell for comment.

The Diocese of Florida is one of more than two dozen dioceses that are financial supporters of the Living Church Foundation.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Standing Committee response had disclosed the names of a dozen priests who were cited anonymously in the Court of Review report. In fact, the dozen priests were from an exhibit to the report and were identified by name. A separate but overlapping list of priests was cited anonymously in a different section of the 189-page report. The article has been corrected.   

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