Diocese of Florida appeals to standing committees, bishops to give consent for Bishop-elect Charlie Holt

By David Paulsen
Posted May 24, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Florida has just crossed the halfway mark of the canonical 120-day period for its campaign to secure churchwide consents for the Rev. Charlie Holt to become its next bishop. In other bishop elections, The Episcopal Church’s consent process nearly always ends in the ordination of the bishop, but Florida faces unusually strong opposition, due to questions about the election’s fairness and Holt’s fitness to serve.

The Jacksonville-based diocese has until July 20 to persuade a majority of the church’s 106 bishops with jurisdiction and a majority of the church’s 110 diocesan standing committees to give their consent to Holt’s ordination as bishop coadjutor, or his election will be negated. And though the current vote tallies are not publicly available, Florida leaders say they still have work to do in achieving majorities.

So far, “there’s definitely more ‘nos’ than ‘yeses,'” the Rev. Joe Gibbes, Florida Standing Committee president, said on May 23 in an interview with Episcopal News Service. He declined to provide specific numbers.

Charlie Holt

The Rev. Charlie Holt was declared the winner of the November 2022 bishop coadjutor election in the Diocese of Florida.

Last week, the Florida Standing Committee appealed via letter directly to bishops and other standing committees to allow the ordination of Holt, who would succeed Florida Bishop John Howard when he retires later this year. The Florida committee’s May 16 letter seeks to persuade not only bishops and standing committees who haven’t voted yet, but also those who already decided to withhold their consent to Holt’s ordination.

Bishops and standing committees have the full 120-day period to reconsider and potentially change their “no” votes to “yes” votes. Gibbes and other Florida leaders hope they will.

“It has dramatic consequences for our diocese,” he said. “We believe that our election process was valid, and that the will of the majority spoke clearly twice.”

Holt, formerly a priest in the Diocese of Texas, was first elected in May 2022. After he was declared the winner, some Episcopalians from across the church raised concerns on social media about past statements by Holt that they interpreted as insulting to Black and LGBTQ+ people. Holt apologized for what he described as poor word choices but defended his record as a priest who worked to bridge cultural divides.

The election, however, also faced formal objections over procedural issues, which prompted an investigation by a churchwide Court of Review and ultimately led the standing committee to schedule a second election in November 2022. Holt was again declared the winner, elected on the first ballot.

Clergy and lay delegates in the diocese raised new objections to the second election, including allegations that a pattern of anti-LGBQ+ discrimination during Howard’s two decades as bishop had skewed the pool of vote-eligible delegates, potentially affecting election outcome. Again, a churchwide Court of Review investigated and, in issuing its findings in February, partly sided with the objectors.

The Court of Review’s actions are not binding, though the Florida Standing Committee was required to include the court’s report with its requests for consent from other standing committees and from bishops, along with diocesan documents defending the election and endorsing Holt as bishop-elect. That package of materials was distributed March 22, starting the 120-day clock.

The Diocese of Florida, one of five Episcopal dioceses in the state, has long been known as a conservative stronghold in a denomination that is increasingly progressive – particularly on issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion. Howard was one of the last holdout Episcopal bishops to allow same-sex couples to marry in his diocese.

Bishop John Howard

Bishop John Howard has led the Jacksonville-based Diocese of Florida since 2004. Photo: Diocese of Florida

But Gibbes pushed back on the argument that Howard’s treatment of gay and lesbian clergy was relevant to the diocese’s election of a new bishop. “To me, those are separate issues,” Gibbes told ENS. “We ran a clean election, given the delegates that we had.”

On May 16, the standing committee issued an update to its own diocese, saying that “the wider church is considering carefully” whether to allow Holt’s ordination and that Florida Episcopalians “must be patient, difficult as that may be.” On the same day, in its letter to bishops and standing committees across the church, the Florida Standing Committee urged them to thoroughly review the diocese’s materials, consider meeting with Florida leaders and contact Holt directly if they have questions or concerns.

The Florida letter addressed to bishops and standing committees emphasized that “the matter entrusted to you is too important to make a hasty vote, and if you voted without reviewing our materials, we urge you to reconsider. … The consensus of the wider church will have dramatic consequences for the life and vitality of our beloved diocese.”

Holt also commented publicly on the consent process, in a Q&A session during a May 14 visit to Episcopal Church of the Advent in Tallahassee. Video of the session was posted to the church’s Facebook page.

“We are actually a long way away from getting consents,” Holt said, without specifying the current vote tally. He later acknowledged, “I may not be consented to, and that’s a reality.”

The General Convention Office facilitates the collection of standing committee consents on behalf of the electing diocese, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is responsible for requesting votes by bishops. The presiding bishop also is canonically required to “take order for the ordination of the bishop-elect” once both majorities are reached.

Churchwide officials told ENS they would have no comment on that process until it reaches its conclusion – either with majority consent for Holt’s ordination or the expiration of the 120-day period.

The Diocese of Florida hired Holt last year as a diocesan staff member while the first election was under review. He previously served as associate rector of teaching and formation at the Church of St. John the Divine in Houston, Texas. His former bishop, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Doyle, of the Diocese of Texas, issued a forceful defense of Holt in a May 12 online essay that also scrutinized claims that Florida’s process for granting clergy members voice and vote in the election was uniquely unfair.

“Many dioceses have policies about clergy canonical residence that are similar to that of the Diocese of Florida, and those policies now seem to stand in opposition to the Court of Review’s ruling,” Doyle wrote. He said Holt “has been a good member of our clergy and has made positive contributions. He has been in relationship with diverse members of our clergy with no cause for concern.”

“Many standing committees and bishops have made decisions without speaking with Charlie Holt or leaders in the Diocese of Florida,” Doyle said. “It is not too late to change your consent and allow the good faithful work of all the people in Florida to be recognized.”

Most other bishops and standing committees have refrained from saying publicly how they have voted, while some others, like Doyle, have joined the debate over whether Holt should become an Episcopal bishop. The Diocese of Ohio Standing Committee issued a statement on May 10 explaining why it voted against consenting to Holt’s ordination.

Bishops are ordained not only for their dioceses but for the whole church, the standing committee said. “As recently as last year, the Rev. Holt has made statements that have been hurtful not only to the LGBTQ community but also to our communities of color. … We cannot in good faith agree that someone who has caused such pain should now be ordained as bishop, pastor and unifier of the wider church.”

In a written response to the Ohio decision, Holt said it brought him “a profound sense of sorrow,” and he questioned each of the standing committee’s justifications. The allegations of racial insensitivity were “based on a video edited and circulated online by opponents to my election” and ignored other examples of his racial justice work, Holt said. “How will the church adjudicate situations in which future bishops-elect are subject to vigorous social media-based opposition based on partial and misleading information?”

In the Diocese of Northern Indiana, retired Bishop Frank Gray, who no longer has a vote in the consent process, wrote a letter to current Northern Indiana Bishop Douglas Sparks and the diocese’s standing committee urging them to reconsider their no votes. A spokesman for Sparks and the diocese declined to comment on Gray’s letter for this story.

Rio Grande Bishop Michael Hunn wrote a three-part series of articles for The Living Church last week about how he was wrestling with whether to grant consent to Holt’s ordination. Without revealing how he voted or planned to vote, Hunn concluded, “there is grief in my heart over this whole situation, and there is pain that so many have felt on all sides of this. I am praying for unity, healing, kindness, and the courage that it takes to do the right thing.”

Other groups from across the church have weighed in with their own opinions on the process and Holt’s fitness to serve as bishop. The Deputies of Color and a group of LGBTQ+ Episcopal leaders issued separate statements in February urging bishops and standing committees to vote no. The Union of Black Episcopalians said in an April message that it wished to address “the cries emanating from the Diocese of Florida” and “the agony of those who are distressed” over the election process. It did not take a stance on Holt’s ordination.

On May 13, the umbrella group of seven progressive Episcopal organizations known as The Consultation followed up with a letter thanking bishops and standing committees for their work and applauding efforts to hold the church to its own principles. “At stake in this election, which emerged out of a documented discriminatory system, is whether we as a wider church will hold ourselves to account to our non-discrimination canons.”

Three current members of The Episcopal Church Executive Council were among the 17 listed signers of the letter, as was former House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing.

Holt has received strong support from other corners of the church, including within the Diocese of Florida. A large group of lay members of the diocese, calling themselves “Laity for Rev. Charlie Holt,” signed a letter to churchwide leaders urging them to honor the result of the diocese’s election.

“Our Episcopal Church’s tradition and polity include both a great respect for the minority voice and a resolution by majority vote, in which decisions of each diocese should be respected in all but the most extreme circumstances,” the lay group said. “This mutual respect is essential and the glue which binds us all together.”

And on May 21, members of the Latino Hispanic Ministries of the Diocese of Florida released a video appeal to Episcopal bishops and standing committees, asking them to vote yes. It featured the Rev. Miguel Rosada, a priest in the diocese who was a runner-up to Holt in both elections.

“We prayerfully ask you to consent,” Rosada said. “If you have withheld consent, you can still change your mind and your vote and honor our discernment by consenting to the election of Charlie Holt as bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Florida.”

It remains to be seen whether such appeals will have their intended effect. When asked by ENS whether any bishops and standing committees had responded to the Diocese of Florida’s invitation for individual conversations, Gibbes responded simply, “Nope.”

Howard will reach the church’s mandatory retirement age of 72 in September. If Holt fails to receive the necessary consents, the standing committee will become the diocese’s ecclesiastical authority and will continue navigating the diocese through its leadership transition.

The standing committee already is preparing for that possibility while advocating for Holt as the diocese’s next bishop, Gibbes said. He also expressed frustration at the message some churchwide leaders seem to be sending Florida, that no bishop election there would be acceptable.

“I agree that there were problems the first time with the process, but the will of the majority was expressed in both elections,” Gibbes said. “What has to happen for us to have a valid election? … Even if someone doesn’t want Charlie Holt to be our bishop, what do they suggest I do?”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.