Diocese of Florida is denied churchwide consents needed to ordain Charlie Holt as bishop

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Florida was blocked from ordaining the Rev. Charlie Holt as its bishop coadjutor after a churchwide majority of bishops and standing committees withheld their consent over concerns raised about Florida’s election and Holt’s fitness to serve, the diocese announced on July 21, 2023.

The announcement came a day after the end of the canonically mandated 120-day consent period. During that period the Florida Standing Committee and other Florida Episcopalians had pleaded with churchwide leaders to honor the result of their November 2022 election. Holt was to succeed retiring Bishop John Howard. Those pleas couldn’t overcome calls from some within the diocese and across the church to deny consent over procedural concerns and Holt’s past statements on racial and LGBTQ+ issues.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry issued a statement July 21 marking the end of the consent period as the Jacksonville-based Diocese of Florida considers its next steps.

“A bishop election is a process that involves the whole church, and we acknowledge that many have been and will continue to be affected by the process. Please hold the whole church in prayer as we move forward,” Curry said. “Also, please continue to pray for the people, clergy, and other leadership of the Diocese of Florida – and for the Rev. Charlie Holt and his family – as they discern their ways forward.”

Standing Committee response of the Diocese of Florida

The Florida Standing Committee, in its statement on the result, acknowledged that Holt’s election was now “null and void.” When Howard steps down later this year after reaching the church’s mandatory retirement age, the standing committee will assume ecclesiastical authority in the diocese. Howard turns 72 on September 8, 2023. He nd is required by church canons to retire within three months of that date.

“We know this news will evoke many responses, especially among the delegates who voted for Charlie Holt, those who have worked hard to obtain consent to the election and those who objected to it,” the standing committee said. “Certainly, this is a crucial moment in our life together as a diocese, and yet we are assured every week as we gather at the Lord’s Table that we are living members of the Body of Jesus Christ. We are then sent out into the world to love God and love each other.

“In keeping with these beliefs, we are asking that you please join us in praying for our diocese and for one another. 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.”

Facebook post from the Diocese of Florida.

Response from the Rev. Charles Holt

The standing committee also shared a letter from Holt, who thanked the diocese for electing him and for welcoming him and his family to the diocese. He previously served as associate rector of teaching and formation at the Church of St. John the Divine in Houston, Texas. The Diocese of Florida hired him as a diocesan staff member while the first of its two bishop elections was under review.

“The love and kindness you have shared with me and my family over the past year have been a tremendous blessing. We will always remember the gifts you have given us, no matter what else,” Holt said. “Please join me as I pray in hope for the future of the Diocese of Florida. Our hope is that these current struggles will not lead you to abandon it.”

He added that he and his wife plan to remain in the Diocese of Florida “if you will have us, as there is much work to do, and this is our home.”

Read past ENS coverage of Florida’s bishop election

Consent process for ordaining a bishop

Granting consent to bishop ordinations typically is a routine process that nearly always ends in the ordination of the bishop. The last time a diocese failed to receive the necessary consents was in January 2019, when bishops and standing committees blocked the Diocese of Haiti from ordaining and consecrating its chosen bishop coadjutor over doubts about the fairness of the election.

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.

Holt’s election as bishop coadjutor

Concerns about the person

The diocese first elected Holt to succeed Howard 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.

In interviews and Q&A sessions with bishop candidates before the election, Holt had said he holds the view the marriage is intended for a man and a woman, a view shared by Howard and a handful of other conservative Episcopal bishops. Holt later affirmed he would allow same-sex couples to marry in the diocese, as required by General Convention. Critics also objected to how he described The Episcopal Church’s efforts to welcome LGBTQ+ people.

And in response to another question about diversity, Holt had told a story about when he had previously served in the diocese and was the only white minister at a rally in Sanford, Florida, protesting the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. He described his surprise at being invited to speak in a Black church, a contrast to white Episcopal churches, which may not be as open to welcoming Black pastors to the pulpit.

Holt apologized for what he described as poor word choices but defended his record as a priest who worked to bridge cultural divides.

The Rev. Charlie Holt answers a question during a Diocese of Florida bishop candidate forum at St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palatka, Florida
The Rev. Charlie Holt answers a question during a Diocese of Florida bishop candidate forum at St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palatka, Florida.

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Concerns about the process

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 were 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.

Response to the consent process for Holt

Most bishops and standing committees refrained from saying publicly how they have voted. One notable exception was the Diocese of Ohio Standing Committee, which issued a statement on May 10 explaining why it voted against consenting to Holt’s ordination. Another was Texas Bishop Andrew Doyle, Holt’s former bishop, who issued a forceful defense of Holt in a May 12, 2023, online essay that also scrutinized claims that Florida’s process for granting clergy members voice and vote in the election was uniquely unfair.

Other groups from across the church weighed in with their own opinions. 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.

While bishops and standing committees were deliberating, various groups of Episcopalians in the Diocese of Florida launched efforts to support Holt in the consent process. In May, for example, 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. Another group, calling itself “Laity for Rev. Charlie Holt” produced a petition with hundreds of signatories urging churchwide leaders to honor the result of the diocese’s election.

Such appeals, however, never appeared to gain much traction among the 106 bishops and 110 standing committees that would decide Holt’s fate. Only one, the Diocese of Spokane Standing Committee, was reported to have changed its “no” vote to “yes.”

What happens next

The Florida Standing Committee, in its July 21 message, said that it will invite outside bishops to assist with confirmations, ordinations and other pastoral roles after Howard retires. Longer-term options, including seeking an assisting bishop, launching a new search for a diocesan bishop or electing a bishop provisional to serve for a limited time as a transitional leader.

“Beloved, although our path forward is not yet clear, our hope is in knowing who holds our future. While our current circumstances are difficult and uncertain, we can rest this day knowing God is with us and will not desert us,” the standing committee said. “Because Jesus Christ is Lord, we have a hope that can and will see us through these challenging times. In this hope, we continue to pray for each of you, for our diocese, and for the one Church.”

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

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