Diocese of Florida’s proposed resolution would eliminate an estimated 88 clergy from voting rolls

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 25, 2023
Joe Gibbes speaks

The Rev. Joe Gibbes, Diocese of Florida Standing Committee president, gives opening remarks at an Oct. 24 pre-convention meeting held at the Episcopal School of Jacksonville. He was joined on stage by the Rev. Teresa Seagle, a fellow standing committee member who serves as the school’s dean of spiritual life and service. Photo: Diocese of Florida, via YouTube

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Florida is scheduled to consider at its Nov. 11 convention a series of changes to the diocese’s canons and articles of incorporation that include a measure that potentially would eliminate some seven dozen clergy from the voting rolls by tightening the diocese’s criteria.

Members of the diocese are offering their feedback to the proposed resolutions at three pre-convention meetings being held Oct. 24-26 around the diocese. The first, held at the Episcopal School of Jacksonville, was livestreamed on the diocese’s YouTube channel. Livestreams also are planned at 6:30 p.m. Eastern for the Oct. 25 session at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Gainesville and the Oct. 26 session at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee.

Lee Haramis, chair of the Committee on Charter and Canons, presented his committee’s six proposed resolutions at the Oct. 24 session, acknowledging that the resolution changing the clergy delegate criteria was “maybe the one that’s created the most controversy or discussion.”

The issue of who gets to vote at diocesan convention, particularly in bishop elections, was central to some of the objections that some voting members made to the Diocese of Florida’s two separate elections of the Rev. Charlie Holt as bishop coadjutor in 2022. The first election was subsequently voided over procedural concerns, and after Holt was elected a second time, his consecration as bishop failed to receive the majority of churchwide consents needed to proceed.

“Some people were dissatisfied with clergy being in other states having nothing to do with the Diocese of Florida except show up for convention to elect a bishop,” Haramis said in explaining his committee’s approach to the matter. “But we also looked at it because, what is important, and what we thought was important, was that we want people empowered to vote who are invested in and affected by our diocese.”

Under the diocese’s existing canons, the criteria for seat, voice and vote are listed briefly as “all canonically resident clergy of the diocese in good standing.” The canons offer no further definition.

The proposed change would expand on what it means to be “canonically resident in good standing.” It would require a priest or deacon to be “actively serving … in a parish, mission or office or ministry.” That service must be authorized by parish leadership and approved by the bishop.

The Committee on Charter and Canons said in its explanatory report that it settled on this language after consulting the canons of other dioceses, particularly the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. Retired clergy would not automatically be excluded from voting, though the committee estimated that 88 clergy who were eligible to vote in the 2022 conventions would lose that privilege under this change.

Several priests spoke at the Oct. 24 forum to voice concerns about perceived ambiguity in the resolution, the discretion it would invest in the bishop and the resolution’s timing, so soon after last year’s contentious bishop elections.

“I think where a lot of the heartburn seems to come from, in what I’m hearing, is that a clergy person who retires from active and continuing employment in the Diocese of Florida is no longer a clergy person in good standing,” said the Rev. Wiley Ammons, rector of Church of the Redeemer in Jacksonville. He alluded to the previous rector at Church of the Redeemer, who retired but still attends and sometimes helps with services there.

The Rev. Joe Woodfin, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fernandina Beach, also questioned Haramis about the resolution and its motivation.

“Why now?” Woodfin said. “If we’re heading into a season of healing – and I hope that we are – why do this Resolution 2 now?” Postponing the discussion until a future convention would give members of the diocese “some chance to heal” first.

The Committee on Charter and Canons was appointed by outgoing Bishop John Howard, whose effective retirement date is Oct. 31. After he retires, the Florida Standing Committee will become the diocese’s ecclesiastical authority and will preside over the upcoming convention.

The committee is proposing five other resolutions at the convention:

  • Amend the articles of incorporation to define convention quorum as a majority of eligible delegates, instead of the previous definition of two-thirds.
  • Amend canons to allow for online attendance at conventions.
  • Change diocesan procedures for authorizing the borrowing of money.
  • Authorize the diocesan convention, instead of Diocesan Council, to elect trustees to the University of the South.
  • Various other clarifying changes to canonical language.

The diocesan convention also is scheduled to consider a separate resolution seeking to amplify the Diocese of Florida’s racial reconciliation efforts.

The diocese, however, is preparing for the convention at a time when its stark divisions have been laid bare by last year’s bishop elections and by subsequent public allegations of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination by Howard during his 20-year tenure as bishop.

The Rev. Joe Gibbes, standing committee president, acknowledged those divisions in his opening remarks at the Oct. 24 pre-convention meeting. When Howard retires next week, it will be “a new day” in the Diocese of Florida, Gibbes said, “and you might be excited about that, or you might be sad about that. You might be eager or nervous or cynical indifferent. It doesn’t matter to me. What matters is how we conduct ourselves going forward.”

It would be too much to expect unanimous agreement on theological issues, he said, but he pleaded for all participants to help “move the Diocese of Florida toward proper functioning” by being open to the perspectives of fellow Episcopalians with whom they may disagree.

“More than likely, you’re hurting,” Gibbes said. “And so is the person sitting next to you. So is the person in front of you. So is the person behind you. Chances are they’re not hurting for the same reasons that you’re hurting, but they’re hurting.”

Gibbes, rector of Church of Our Saviour in Jacksonville, also asked his fellow Episcopalians to look ahead to the convention as Christians prepared to “bear with one another in love.”

“We’re going to be quick to listen. We’re going to be slow to anger. We’re going to be charitable and assume the best in people,” he said. “How we conduct ourselves and our capacity to bear with each other in Christian love will say much more about where we want to go as a diocese than the content of the business we conduct on Nov. 11.”

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