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Diocese of Florida Releases Response to Election Objection

November election demonstrated fidelity to diocesan, churchwide canons, says Standing Committee

JACKSONVILLE, FL  •  December 13, 2022  •  10:30 AM ET

The Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida today released a detailed explanation of the policies and procedures that governed its November 19 bishop election, at which the Rev. Charlie Holt was elected bishop coadjutor on the first ballot. The diocese also responded in detail to a five-point objection filed with the secretary of the convention by 29 delegates to the electing convention.

“We knew our election would be closely scrutinized, and we took special measures to assure the people of our diocese and observers in the wider church that we were proceeding fairly and transparently,” said the Rev. Joe Gibbes, president of the diocese’s Standing Committee. “We hired an independent parliamentarian, an independent canon law specialist and an outside auditing firm to help guide and monitor the election. We were deeply committed to ensuring a fair outcome, and, speaking on behalf of the Standing Committee, we believe we did.”

In keeping with Canon III.11.8 (a), the objection to the election has been transmitted to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who will request the Episcopal Church’s Court of Review to investigate it. The court will publish a report on its findings within 30 days of receiving the objection, which will be provided to the bishops and Standing Committees that must consent to the Rev. Holt’s election.

The diocese initially elected Holt from a five-candidate field on May 14, but the Court of Review found that procedural irregularities “cast doubt on the integrity of the election.” After the court released its opinion, Holt withdrew his acceptance of his election, and the Standing Committee, in consultation with diocesan Bishop John Howard, decided to hold a second election.

“After the first election, we worked hard to address the shortcomings the court had identified,” the Rev. Teresa Seagle, a member of the Standing Committee, said. “We took the second election as an opportunity to respond effectively to the voters who had raised objections, and to demonstrate our fidelity to the canons of our diocese and of the wider Episcopal Church.”

Three of the five points in the objection focus on the composition of the electorate and the counting of votes at the electing convention.

The delegates who filed the objection charge that an “unregistered, ineligible voter” cast a ballot in the clergy order, thus giving Holt the precise number of votes required to win in that order on the first ballot. The diocese has determined, however, that no unauthorized votes were cast. Volunteers handling check-in at the convention mistakenly marked two clergy as present who were not in attendance, and one person who arrived late was not marked as present. In addition, one clergy person felt sick and left the convention before voting.

“These clerical errors … had no impact on the count of present clergy conducted by the independent auditors, nor any impact on the integrity of the quorum or vote,” the statement from the Standing Committee said.

“An ‘unregistered, ineligible voter’ would have had to know in advance that a particular member of the clergy was pre-registered for the convention, but would not be attending.  This ‘unregistered, ineligible voter’ would have had to present himself or herself and request a ballot in the name of the absent, pre-registered clergy person and successfully assume the appearance of that absent clergy person in our relatively small diocesan clergy group, where most people know each other.”

The objectors also charged that Howard had “unfairly skewed” the clerical electorate at the convention by denying canonical residency—and therefore the right to vote in diocesan elections—to “at least 11 clergy with cure.” This was due, they suggest, to theological differences over the issue of same-sex marriage.

The objectors provided no names of people who had been discriminated against, but the Standing Committee examined the situations of 18 clergy members whom others alleged had been unjustly denied a vote in the May election, and found no evidence to support this charge.

Through “review of diocesan records and clergy files, dialogue with the bishop and diocesan staff, and conversations with the clergy themselves,” the Standing Committee concluded that “the bishop had a clear standard for granting canonical residence, in line with applicable canons,” and applied that standard consistently.

“When the objection of November 28 was received, we reviewed each of these situations again and confirmed our original findings,” the committee wrote. “Not one clergy person who met the bishop’s long-held criteria complained to the bishop’s office about their voting standard in advance of the November election, and no clergy person has complained that he or she sought and was denied canonical residence or, as a result, the ability to vote in the November election.”

The objectors charge that duly elected lay delegates were denied seat, voice, and vote at the election due to a change in diocesan rules. The Standing Committee’s statement acknowledges the number of lay representatives changed, but said this was due to a desire to adhere strictly to diocesan canons.

“For the May election, we had decided to follow the precedent of our 2022 annual diocesan convention and allow parishes to use their pre-COVID numbers to determine their number of delegates for the electing convention,” the Standing Committee wrote. “This was a pastoral accommodation to the circumstances and nothing more.”

After the Court of Review released its findings, the diocese determined to adhere strictly to the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons and the Canons of the Diocese of Florida, and grant no “reasonable pastoral, pandemic-era accommodations.”

“To adhere to Florida Canon 1, Section 3(b), we required that all parishes use the attendance numbers reported in their 2021 Parochial Report to determine the number of delegates they could send to the electing convention,” the committee wrote. “This canon was put in place in 2002, during a prior episcopacy. We informed the diocese of this decision in an email on October 3, more than one month before the electing convention, and shared it again in a video published on October 19.”

A fourth objection focused on whether the diocese adhered to the details of the resolution authorizing its second electing convention. In particular, objectors contended that the November 19 election was in violation of a resolution that set November 5 as the bishop coadjutor’s start date. The Standing Committee replied that, after consultation with its independent parliamentarian, it believes that holding the election after the originally projected start date was similar to paying a bill after it was due.

The final objection alleged that the diocese had prejudiced the election in Holt’s favor by hiring him to serve on the diocesan staff after his initial election.

“Bishop Howard felt that hiring Fr. Holt was pastorally appropriate, both for the diocese that had elected him, and for the Holt family, whose youngest child was about to begin his senior year in high school,” the Standing Committee wrote.

“During his time on the diocesan staff, Fr. Holt has preached and presided only at parishes where he was invited by the rector or wardens, just as any priest might accept such an invitation,” the statement continues, noting that both of Holt’s opponents were well-known diocesan canons whose ministries are also supported by diocesan funds.

“The diocese strove to conduct a fair election,” the Standing Committee wrote. “We brought in outside observers with no interest in the outcome to guide and monitor our convention. We knew this election would be closely scrutinized, and we welcomed the opportunity to show the wider church our commitment both to the spirit of fairness and the letter of canon law. We continue to believe the Rev. Charlie Holt was lawfully elected as bishop coadjutor.”