Florida Bishop John Howard says General Convention’s effort to ensure same-sex marriages can happen in all of the church’s domestic dioceses is “the standard in this diocese.” Photo: Diocese of Florida
[Episcopal News Service] Some Episcopalians in the Diocese of Florida say Bishop John Howard is not living up to the General Convention’s desire to give same-sex couples unfettered access to same-sex marriage in all of the church’s domestic dioceses, but Howard says that’s not true, calling his process one of “collaboration and transparency.”
Howard, however, Feb. 1 declined Episcopal News Service’s request to clarify how that process works. In a brief telephone conversation, the bishop said that his convention address and ENS’ previous conversations with the diocese’s communications director “should take care of what you need from me.” The telephone conversation came the day after ENS emailed the bishop, at his request, a description of what it wished to ask him.
“You’ve heard everything I have to say, and I’ll have no further comment,” he said.
The Episcopalians outlined their concerns in a letter to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry that was posted Jan. 22 on the online petition-hosting website change.org here. Organizers say Curry was officially notified of the letter on Jan. 25 and was later sent a hard copy, according to the small group that drafted it.
The letter says Howard told the diocese’s active clergy in September that a rector wishing to officiate at same-sex marriages must meet with him and bring the parish’s wardens to the meeting. Howard “further requires the rector to look into the bishop’s eyes and tell him he/she is defying his pastoral directive,” the letter says. Many, but not all, of the organizers were at the meeting in question.
Then, according to the letter, another bishop will be made available to provide pastoral support to the couple, clergy and congregation. The petition says the congregation must pay the alternate bishop’s stipend for expenses incurred in giving that support.
Howard’s plan is an “intimidating, unduly cumbersome process and unfair to our brothers and sisters in Christ who seek to be married in this church,” the letter says.
“Clergy seeking to live out their baptismal covenant and ordination vows must put their ministries, as well as the ministries of their parish, at risk by stating they are defying their bishop,” the petition says.
“The resolution answered the prayers of many in this diocese and gave our GLBTQ community hope that they could finally experience justice, peace and dignity,” the petition concludes. “Once again they wait and suffer due to the parameters imposed upon us in the Diocese of Florida. We suffer with them.”
The letter had 975 signatures when it was closed on Jan. 31.
Howard formulated his policy in response to General Convention Resolution B012, passed in July to end the church’s requirement that bishops give their permission for clergy to use two marriage rites that the previous meeting of convention had authorized for trial use (via Resolution A054) by both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
Howard told diocesan convention about the process of implementing B012 in Florida
On Jan. 26 during his address to his diocese’s 176th annual convention, Howard said that “a lot of murmuring and non-truths” have been circulating in the diocese but that Resolution B012 is “the standard in this diocese.” He said he has established a process of “collaboration and transparency.” Howard said that process requires a rector or priest in charge and the parish’s wardens to meet with him to discuss their desire to offer same-sex marriages.
“After meeting with the rector or priest and wardens, Resolution B012 puts another burden on me, another job on me,” Howard said. “I need to find another bishop willing to undertake pastoral oversight for them in accordance with the provisions of B012.”
No such process is mandated by B012; however, the resolution says that if the diocesan bishop “does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples,” he or she “shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the member of the clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites.”
Howard reported to diocesan convention that he has had one such meeting with a rector and wardens, calling it “cordial, friendly, prayerful and productive” and adding that it “did not seem burdensome, onerous or punitive.”
It is unusual for a parish’s wardens to be involved in marriage decisions; moreover, such involvement and implied agreement are not required by the church’s canons. In fact, the canons explicitly give the authority for marriage and liturgical decisions to the rector or priest in charge of a congregation. However, many parishes across the Episcopal Church that offer same-sex marriage do so after a process of conversation among the clergy and lay leaders and congregants.
Howard said during his address that he opposes same-sex marriage. “Don’t talk about it a lot, talk about it very seldom, wish I could talk about it even less but that’s a fact,” he said. “This morning, I hope that one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit moving in us and through us in our churches is that we won’t, one more time, permit this issue to divide us.”
The bishop had said during the House of Bishops’ debate on B012 at General Convention that, after the 2003 meeting of General Convention consented to the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, “My diocese became the epicenter of warfare within the church over those issues of a partnered gay man becoming a bishop of the church, and became a place where open warfare, even in the floor of convention and in parish halls, occurred.”
A video recording of Howard’s convention address is below and here. His B012 remarks begin at the 38 minute 20 second mark.
Emily Stimler, director of communications for the Diocese of Florida, told Episcopal News Service on Jan. 24 that people were confused about Howard’s process and intent.
“People that maybe were at the meeting misunderstood, and from there it’s just kind of been snowballing. We intend to fully comply and be supportive of it,” Stimler said.
However, the Rev. Robert Griffiths, who facilitated posting the letter on change.org said on an unofficial Diocese of Florida Facebook public group page the day after Howard’s remarks to the diocesan convention that the letter “was fact checked before it was posted with a number of clergy who were at the September meeting.” That post has since been removed from the page.
The Rev. Penny Pfab, retired rector of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea in Jacksonville Beach, told ENS late last week that she drafted the letter after a small group of Episcopalians began discussing what they understood to be the bishop’s policy. Pfab, who did not attend the September meeting because retired clergy were not invited, said she verified the facts in the letter and Howard’s words with priests in the group who did attend the meeting. She also consulted a rector who was at the meeting but was not part of the letter-writing group.
“He told them that this is the process in the Diocese of Florida,” she said. “And those who were there said that, by defying the pastoral directive, they’re putting their ministries at risk and their parishes at risk as well.”
The church’s canons say a pastoral directive must be in writing. Pfab said she has not received such a pastoral directive in writing, adding she has not heard from any active clergy who received such a document.
It’s possible that some people who were at the meeting misunderstood what the bishop said, Pfab allowed, but added, “I haven’t talked to anyone who is confused. There may be some who are wondering. It would be helpful if [Howard] would put it in writing and then there would be no confusion.”
The signers of the letter do not ask Curry for any specific action on his part. “We’ll leave that to him,” Pfab told ENS. “We wanted him to know how the resolution is being implemented in the Diocese of Florida and our belief that this is not in keeping with spirit of the resolution.”
When contacted by ENS, Griffiths would not comment on the record. In the past, Griffiths served as Howard’s canon to the ordinary for 10 years.
Not all clergy in the diocese will speak publicly about the process
Many other priests in the diocese are reportedly reluctant to talk publicly about the process Howard has outlined. “They are afraid. I have had one or two say, ‘I can’t go public on this. I can’t do that.’ It would put their congregation at risk,” the Rev. Christopher S. Martin, who retired in 2007 after serving for 23 years as rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Green Cove Springs, recently told ENS.
Martin said he is part of the letter-writing group. Although retired clergy were not invited to the September meeting, Martin said he attended anyway. He said Howard began with a long “teaching” on marriage to show that same-sex marriage is wrong. Martin said Howard told clergy not to solemnize same-sex marriages “in any church in his diocese.”
“People did ask him, ‘Is there any way you can change your mind of this?’” Martin said, and Howard said no.
“This was not an open discussion,” Martin said, despite efforts on the part of some clergy members. “He was not interested in dialogue.”
Martin said that “there’s a lot of fear and a lot of intimidation” among the active clergy, adding that one person told him that, after the meeting, he realized he had no future in the diocese.
One congregation that may discuss offering the same-sex rites is St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, though the Rev. David Killeen said he didn’t expect any decision to be made on “how we’re going to proceed as a parish” until the parish’s new vestry gets to work this month.
Any decision by the congregation will follow a “major discernment process,” Killeen said. He added that his parish wants to be proactive in determining how it will respond if it receives a pastoral inquiry regarding same-sex marriage.
“We want to be able to respond thoughtfully and faithfully,” he said. “The reality is there is a new normal with [B012].”
Killeen said he personally wouldn’t feel intimidated by anything Howard has said about B012 or same-sex marriage in the past. He didn’t elaborate on the content of Howard’s September meeting with clergy.
“I take the diocese at their word right now, which is that they’re going to be in accordance with B012,” he told ENS earlier this month. “At this point, it appears that any parish just needs to go with the rector and the wardens [and meet] with the bishop to advise.”
Meanwhile, the Rev. Louanne Loch, the current rector of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea in Jacksonville Beach, told ENS that Howard has agreed to meet with her and the church wardens for further discussions and clarification of B012.
Curry is due to spend Feb. 4-5 in the diocese for a previously scheduled visit. As part of his time in the diocese, Curry will meet with clergy and their spouses over lunch at St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville hosted by Howard and the cathedral’s dean, the Very Rev. Kate Moorehead. When contacted by ENS last week, Moorehead declined to comment on the implementation of B012 in the diocese.
Presiding bishops often include clergy-only gatherings during their diocesan visits. However, commenters on the unofficial Diocese of Florida public group Facebook page recently criticized what they see as the closed nature of the planned meeting. As is typical, Curry has a number of other public events scheduled in the Diocese of Florida during his visit, at which Episcopalians will have opportunities to interact with him.
Stimler told ENS that there will be a question-and-answer session before the luncheon “where B012 will come up again and where I hope this will further clarify for clergy who are present – and not present, because it will be livestreamed publicly.”
What has happened in other dioceses in which the bishop opposes same-sex marriage
The two marriage rites received widespread acceptance across the church. However, eight diocesan bishops in the 101 domestic dioceses did not authorize their use after their introduction in 2015. In addition to Howard, they include Diocese of Albany Bishop William Love, Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer, Dallas Bishop George Sumner, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, Springfield Bishop Dan Martins, Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt and Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs.
Gumbs has told his clergy to offer the rites without further obstacles.
Love is the only one of the eight who initially refused to permit use of the rites and who has flatly refused to conform to B012. On Jan. 11, Curry prevented Love from punishing clergy, laity and congregations who wish to use the rite, and Curry has referred the matter for investigation through the church’s clergy discipline process. Love said he would appeal the restriction.
Brewer, Martins, Smith and Sumner have said they could not be in a pastoral relationship with parishes that wished to perform same-sex marriages. They have negotiated with other bishops to provide Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, or DEPO.
Bauerschmidt said clergy must tell him of their plans and “assure him that the cleric’s congregation agrees to use of the trial rites for marriage.”
In his convention address, Howard specifically rejected the notion of DEPO for Florida parishes that wish to solemnize same-sex marriages. “I could never do that. I won’t do that,” he said. “I love my relationship with you, with the churches you represent and with your clergy, too much to ever do that.
“I assure you that I will cling to you and love you and serve you in every way I can, which principle will permit.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.
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