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A Letter to God’s People in the Diocese

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

Dear God’s People in the Diocese of Florida:

As you know, twenty-nine clergy and lay delegates to the November 19 bishop coadjutor electing convention have filed five objections to its conduct. These objections will be heard by the Episcopal Church’s Court of Review, which we expect to convene in January. We are preparing a response for the court that details the ways in which we sought to ensure that our proceedings were fair and in keeping with the canons of our own diocese and of The Episcopal Church. These include the independent parliamentarian we retained for the election, the canon law expert we retained, and the independent auditors we hired, two of whom were present and supervised the convention’s attendance, quorum, and balloting. We took these steps and others, detailed below, to show our good faith to the wider church and to assure all Episcopalians that we proceeded in a fair and just fashion.

But before we respond to the court, we believe that the people of our diocese, the bishops and standing committees that will be asked to consent to this election, and the wider church deserve an accounting of the diocese’s conduct in this election process. We offer this response not only to answer specific questions, but also because we value our bonds with all of you and with our fellow Episcopalians across the church, which we pray the Holy Spirit will strengthen and sanctify in the years to come.

If you have questions about these responses or would like more information, please email the Standing Committee at [email protected]. Thank you for your perseverance and love for our diocese.

With Faith, Hope, and Love,

Your Standing Committee

The Rev. Joe Gibbes                        Mr. Ben Hill

The Rev. Teresa Seagle                   Mr. Arthur Crofton

The Rev. Sarah Minton                   Ms. Jackie Jones

Fred C. Isaac, Chancellor

 

1) There was a material error in voting not disclosed nor discoverable until after the election.

The objectors assert that there was a material error in voting, but this was not the case. Only qualified voters cast a ballot. Every clergy member present at the Special Convention on November 19 had pre-registered. They were all accounted for, and the auditors from Ralston & Company Certified Public Accountants, whom we retained to provide the highest level of independent scrutiny, confirmed that only those clergy voted.

Regrettably—and this may be the source of the objectors’ confusion—there were three administrative errors on the list of clergy that was published on Monday, November 21. These errors were not replicated on the auditor’s lists of voters. These were honest errors made by the volunteers who checked in delegates at the Convention. During check-in, they accidentally marked as present two clergy who were not there. However, please understand that this had no effect, as no ballots were issued on their behalf. In addition, the check-in volunteers did not mark as present one clergyperson who arrived late and was given her pre-printed nametag and ballot when she arrived. These clerical errors thus 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 authors of the objection suggest that “an unregistered, ineligible voter attended and cast a vote which materially affected the outcome of the November election.” This is highly speculative, and no ineligible voter was identified in the objection. But beyond that, consider that no clergyperson attended the convention who was not pre-registered, and there was no case of a duplicate sign-in on the morning of November 19. 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. There is no evidence (and the objection identifies none) that this chain of events occurred, and the likelihood it could have happened and gone unnoticed is exceedingly small.

A little math might be helpful here:

On the auditors’ list made during the election, 114 eligible clergy were recorded as present, and 113 were counted as voting. One clergy member, who felt sick, was counted as leaving before the vote. So, we had 114 clergy initially in attendance, but 113 voting on the first ballot.

Compare this to the clergy list released on November 21, in which 115 clergy were cited as present. Subtract the two incorrectly marked present, and you have 113. Add the one incorrectly not marked present, and you have 114 clergy present for the convention. Then subtract the one clergy member who felt sick and left, and you have 113 clergy voting on the first ballot.

At the time of the first ballot, two independent auditors counted 113 canonically resident clergy on the floor, each wearing blue canonically resident clergy name tags. These same auditors collected, counted, and tallied 113 paper ballots from clergy in the presence of our parliamentarian.

 

2) Disparate treatment of similarly situated clergy with cure in violation of TEC Canons materially affected the outcome of the election.

We need to make two different, but complementary, points about this assertion. The first deals with canon law, the second with the diocese’s basic commitment to fairness.

It is the opinion of both the Standing Committee and the diocese’s legal team that this point of objection is related to the practice and policies of the incumbent bishop, and not to the procedure of the November 19 election. As a result, it cannot form the basis of an objection under Canon III.11.8(a) of The Episcopal Church, which requires that objections be made to the “election process” and outlines the procedure to be followed.

Canon III.11.8(a) requires that the objection must “[set] forth in detail all alleged irregularities,” but this objection does not do that.

With all that said, the Standing Committee nonetheless would like to assure the people of the diocese and the wider church that we examined the objectors’ concerns regarding denials of canonical residency as closely as we could, accepting any names we were given to determine if they had been treated unfairly. The names of 18 clergy persons were offered to us, not by the clergy themselves, but by those expressing dissatisfaction with the election processes in both May and November. Through review of diocesan records and clergy files, dialogue with the bishop and diocesan staff, and conversations with the clergy themselves, we researched diocesan practice and each situation offered to us. We found that the bishop had a clear standard for granting canonical residence, in line with applicable canons, and reasonably applied these standards:

  • Canonical residency was consistently granted to rectors shortly after presentation of letters dimissory, in keeping with Canon III.9.4(d). To our knowledge, no rectors were denied the right to vote at the November 19 election.
  • Canonical residency was consistently granted to vicars or priests-in-charge who presented letters dimissory.
  • Canonical residency was granted to associate clergy in full-time paid positions after a year; this is a very common practice throughout the wider church.
  • Canonical residency was not granted to clergy (retired or otherwise) who moved to the area without cure unless they had served in the diocese previously and also requested canonical residence.
  • Canonical residency was not granted to clergy who did not request it.
  • Nearly all the clergy we contacted had no desire to move their canonical residence to the Diocese of Florida.

When the objection of November 28 was received, we reviewed each of these situations again and confirmed our original findings. 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. In addition, the bishop has consistently followed diocesan practice on canonical residence with a single exception: he granted the sub-dean of the cathedral canonical residency at the urging of the dean even though he had not yet served in his position for a year.

We found no evidence or pattern that the bishop has based any decision to grant or deny canonical residence on a clergy person’s views on same-sex marriage or any other issue. In every case where canonical residency has not been extended, the reason has been situational, not theological.

 

3) Duly Elected Lay Delegates Denied Seat, Voice, and Vote.

The objectors assert that the diocese “imposed a new rule or naming lay delegates in October of 2022, one month prior to the November election, which violated Diocese of Florida Canons for naming lay delegates.” This is not the case, as is explained below.

After the Court of Review found fault with the diocese for “failing to follow its governing documents” in its conduct of the May 14 election, we understood it was essential that we followed our governing documents faithfully and carefully in our November election.

Like dioceses across the church, we have been thrown into a quandary by the pandemic when it comes to counting Sunday attendance. 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. This was a pastoral accommodation to the circumstances and nothing more.

However, after the Court of Review released its findings, it was clear that we had to adhere carefully to the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons and the Canons of the Diocese of Florida on every issue, and would not have the latitude to make 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. 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.

In the weeks leading up to the November convention, some parishes realized that their elected parish delegates and alternates would not be available. The canons are clear on how parish delegates are selected, but the canons are silent on how unavailable delegates are to be replaced. Where our canons are silent, they expressly defer to Robert’s Rules of Order (See Canons of the Diocese of Florida Canon 29.)

We contracted with an independent parliamentarian, Mr. Tim Wynn, to help guide us through the election, and he informed us that parliamentary law understands that there will be variability with delegates due to life circumstances and authorizes the governing board – in our case, the vestries of the affected parishes – to make such decisions as necessary between the annual meetings. This ability of vestries to make necessary appointments has always been a feature of the canons and parliamentary rules. In addition, the Standing Committee published a further video on November 8 which articulated this point (at approximately the 4:00 mark). Mr. Wynn reiterated this point at the convention, stating that the executive board (the vestry) has the power and duty to act between the assemblies (annual parish meetings), and to legitimately conduct elections in this way. His comments can be found on the election day video at the 1:38:30 mark.

In short, the diocese enforced to the letter its existing rules regarding the calculation of lay delegates, and it allowed parishes to select replacements in a way that met canonical and parliamentary standards. It did not create or impose new rules.

 

4) The Diocese’s own rules were not followed.

The statements under objection 4 presume that Resolution 2021-001 operates as a binding law, when in fact, the resolution gave permission and latitude to the Standing Committee “to proceed with all such steps as are necessary for an Episcopal discernment process.” Clearly, due to the initial objection, more steps have been necessary than were initially anticipated. Moreover, the rules for episcopal elections in the Diocese of Florida’s own relevant governing instruments (Diocese of Florida Canons and the Articles of Reincorporation of the Diocese of Florida) do not impose any particular procedure for those elections. Put together, the resolution and the governing instruments vest wide discretion in the conduct of episcopal elections with the Standing Committee. See Florida Canons 3, 29; and Florida Articles (Art. VII, Sec. 4).

Precise arrangements for the second election began before the election was announced and continued afterwards. But this is neither surprising nor inappropriate, and it runs afoul of no written direction or canonical rule. Few, if any, episcopal elections are conducted in any other fashion simply because there are so many variables, and so many moving parts.

The objection claims that the November 19 election was invalid because the resolution authorizing the election states “That the ministry of the Bishop Coadjutor, as outlined by Bishop Howard, will commence no later than Nov. 5, 2022.” But the resolution set forth an aspirational timeline, not a binding deadline. The November 5 date was never intended as a limitation on the process, but was added purely for budgetary purposes, to assure that funding was available for the new Bishop Coadjutor. As Parliamentarian Tim Wynn stated at the election (approximately 1:37:00 on the YouTube recording), parliamentary law understands that just because a date has passed, a body is not absolved of the responsibility to complete its charge. He compared this to paying a bill. One is still responsible for the debt even after the due date for payment has passed. By holding the election after the date proposed by the resolution, the convention of the diocese was simply paying the bill, as parliamentary law would expect us to do.

Finally, this objection claims that the original search profile should have been updated after the May election. The Standing Committee regards the profile as one of the aspects of the original election to which there was no objection, and asserts that a matter of three months would not have changed the description of the diocese. During the open petition process, which encourages wide participation in the process, neither the Nominating Committee nor the Standing Committee received any requests to review the search profile, and no candidate names were submitted by petition.

 

5) The election process was fundamentally unfair

This objection is rooted in the Rev. Charlie Holt’s employment on the diocesan staff, and takes issue with the actions of Bishop Howard rather than the procedure of the election. While we do not believe this point can be relied on as an objection—it violates no rule—it raises an issue we would like to address.

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. When he was brought on staff, Fr. Holt had been elected as Bishop Coadjutor; he was not a candidate in an upcoming election. The diocese released videos and articles introducing him to its membership. This is not unusual in the church. Once the Court of Review released its findings and Fr. Holt withdrew his acceptance of his election, however, no further videos or introductory materials were distributed.

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 two other candidates, both canons of the diocese whose ministries are supported by diocesan funds, agreed to run again with full knowledge of Fr. Holt’s position on the diocesan staff.

Finally, the current objection states that “the November election violated the principles of fundamental fairness implicitly codified in the Episcopal church canons both in spirit and in action.” Yet, violation of no specific canon is mentioned.

The diocese strove to conduct a fair election. We brought in outside observers—two CPAs, a canon law expert, and an independent parliamentarian—to guide and monitor our convention, and we coordinated closely with the Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development. 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.