[Episcopal News Service] Allegations of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination by Florida Bishop John Howard were a factor in the decision by churchwide leaders to deny consent to the ordination of Howard’s elected successor. Now, nearly a month since that decision nullified the diocese’s election of a bishop coadjutor, the allegations against Howard have not gone away and members of the diocese say they want to know what’s next.
Howard has been under scrutiny for possible canonical violations at least since October 2022, when a letter drafted by Florida clergy sought the attention of Province IV leadership. Separately, a churchwide Court of Review investigating objections to Florida’s bishop election summarized numerous allegations in its February 2023 report. It concluded that the diocese under Howard had shown “a pattern and practice” of discriminating against LGBTQ+ clergy and those who opposed the bishop’s stated views against same-sex marriage.
So far, no pending disciplinary case against Howard has been made public, and it remains unclear whether Howard could face any disciplinary action before he retires. Howard turns 72, the church’s mandatory retirement age, on Sept. 8, though bishops are allowed to serve up to an additional three months. A Diocese of Florida spokesperson told ENS on Aug. 16 that no decision had yet been made on Howard’s effective retirement date or whether he would preside at Florida’s Sept. 30 diocesan convention.
Several clergy and lay leaders in the Diocese of Florida have voiced fears of retaliation by Howard, particularly if he remains in office through the convention. They told ENS that Howard has a history of favoring those who agree with him and could try to punish those who don’t.
“There really is an ‘us and them’ mentality that I have never experienced before as an Episcopal priest,” one canonically resident priest in the diocese told ENS. He asked not to be named because he feared punitive action toward himself or his congregation for speaking out.
Pam Jordan Anderson, a lifelong member of the Diocese of Florida who twice has served on its standing committee, told ENS that she fears for the future of her diocese while Howard is still in office.
Anderson has fond memories of her son carrying the diocesan flag at Howard’s consecration in 2003. She knew then that the new bishop was conservative, particularly on issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion, but “I kept thinking he would come around.” Now, more progressive Episcopalians in the diocese feel “forgotten and alone,” she said.
“I still just shake my head at where we find ourselves,” Anderson said. “It’s just been so hard.”
At least one priest, the Rev. Elyse Gustafson, has attempted to initiate a formal disciplinary case against Howard under The Episcopal Church’s Title IV canons. Over seven months later the status of her claim remains unclear.
Title IV canons apply to all clergy. When they are cited in a complaint against a bishop, the initial complaint historically has been received by the Office of Pastoral Development, which reports to the presiding bishop. The office did not respond to questions posed by ENS for this story, though Bishop Todd Ousley, who leads the Office of Pastoral Development, and others have made it clear in the past that they cannot comment on potential or pending Title IV matters.
The Episcopal Church has prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation at least since 1994. General Convention approved a more extensive revision of the canons on ministry in 2003 establishing that sexual orientation “shall not be a factor in the determination of the Ecclesiastical Authority as to whether such person is a duly qualified Priest.” The revision also specified that a bishop could not deny priests licenses to serve because of sexual orientation.
Howard, through the diocesan spokesperson, said he was unavailable to comment for this story about the allegations of discrimination. He previously disputed some of the allegations in a Jan. 11 rebuttal that was included in the Court of Review’s report. “Neither I, nor the Diocese of Florida, discriminates against LGBTQ clergy,” Howard wrote.
Howard’s assertions, however, run contrary to the experiences described by priests interviewed by ENS for its previous coverage of the long-simmering tensions in the diocese that is now out in the open. At the time the priests told ENS that under Howard, the Diocese of Florida’s discernment and ordination process favored straight aspirants over openly gay and lesbian Episcopalians. They said gay and lesbian priests interested in serving in the diocese were expected to remain celibate. And they said Howard applied discriminatory standards for granting canonical residency. Some chose to navigate those strictures, while others left for other dioceses where they could serve as priests without hiding their sexuality.
Gustafson’s experience – she is openly in a same-sex relationship – was one of several examples cited in the Court of Review’s findings. She moved to the diocese in 2017 and now serves as an assisting priest at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Jacksonville. She has accused Howard of refusing for years to license her to serve in anything more than her current assisting role, presumably because of her sexuality, and effectively blocking her path to canonical residency – as a priest, she remains canonically resident in the Diocese of Chicago.
On July 7, Gustafson said she received notification from Howard that he had, without explanation, granted her an unrestricted clergy license.
In an Aug. 16 interview with Episcopal News Service, Gustafson said she first spoke by phone with Ousley in January 2023 to discuss her complaints against Howard. When they next spoke in March, the diocese was three weeks away from starting the churchwide consent process for the Rev. Charlie Holt, who had twice been elected Florida’s bishop coadjutor. The Office of Pastoral Development also assists dioceses with bishop transitions, and Gustafson recalls Ousley explaining that the Title IV matter was on hold while he and the Diocese of Florida focused on facilitating the four-month consent process for Holt.
All bishops ordained in The Episcopal Church must receive consent from churchwide majorities of diocesan bishops and standing committees. That process almost always ends in the consecration of the bishop. Both Holt’s first election in May 2022 and a re-do election in November 2022 were marred by internal and external concerns about election procedures, Holt’s fitness to serve as bishop and the systemic discrimination documented by the Court of Review under Howard.
On July 21, the Florida Standing Committee announced Holt had not received the necessary majorities and would not become bishop, and the consent process was over. (Three weeks later, Holt was named rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville.)
Since then, Gustafson said she has sought updates from the Office of Pastoral Development. On Aug. 1, the Rev. Barbara Kempf joined the presiding bishop’s staff as intake officer for bishop complaints, a new position that was funded by General Convention in 2022. Kempf is now “the primary contact for receiving allegations of misconduct by bishops” according to a June 29 news release announcing her hire. On Aug. 18, Kempf contacted Gustafson to schedule a conversation sometime later this summer.
Meanwhile, the Florida Standing Committee soon will assume the role of ecclesiastical authority, but only after Howard retires. The churchwide canons say a bishop who turns 72 “shall resign,” and the resignation “shall be sent to the presiding bishop, who shall immediately communicate it to every bishop of the church exercising jurisdiction and shall declare the resignation accepted, effective at a designated date not later than three months from the date the resignation was tendered.”
Regardless of when Howard retires, Gustafson said it is important to her to pursue the Title IV matter. Even in retirement, he would remain a bishop of the church.
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.