By Mark Michael
In 2020, I served as an election judge in my town. The pandemic had left the county board short on volunteers, and I was glad to carry on a family tradition, as my mother has staffed the poll for decades in our hometown. I participated in a day-long training session a few weeks beforehand, most of it focused on the processes for registering and certifying voters and handling the machines used to collect ballots.
We were warned that there might be “poll watchers” focused on finding process flaws, but election day itself was quiet and uneventful. The highlight at our site was a visit from the Swiss ambassador, who had come to see for himself that American democracy was just as efficient and undramatic as he had always supposed.
Claims of widespread ballot tampering and faulty machine tabulations were being raised almost as soon as we poll workers headed for home. Former President Trump could not believe he had lost. The crowds at his rallies were so much bigger, his supporters said. His fans showed so much more enthusiasm. Only a massive conspiracy, abetted by compliant poll workers, could explain his crushing defeat in the Electoral College and a four-point gap in the popular vote. I think, like most poll workers, I was thoroughly unconvinced.
President Trump’s blustering is but the most egregious example of a growing trend in American politics. More elections are challenged than ever before, despite major advances in digital security. The concession phone call on election night is almost a quaint relic of the past. For some who call themselves statesmen and stateswomen, it’s almost impossible to let the people decide.
The people of the Diocese of Florida chose the Rev. Charlie Holt as their bishop coadjutor on November 19 for the second time. That should surprise no one, because he won the most votes in both houses on all three ballots the diocese’s electors have cast. But a small group of clergy and lay delegates just can’t be convinced that there isn’t a conspiracy behind it.
They lodged a series of procedural objections to Holt’s first election on May 14, and after a hearing panel found that voting irregularities “cast a shadow on the integrity of the election,” Holt withdrew his acceptance. After he won again, they are back with more complaints. Most are technical, one concerns a clerical error, another alleges a complicated conspiracy behind the granting of canonical residency by Florida’s current bishop. Perhaps the objections will mean the hearing panel must rule on the case for a second time. They pointedly did not convince the electors of the Diocese of Florida, who spent more than three hours patiently listening to them being raised before decisively electing Holt again on a single ballot.
If they fail in persuading the hearing panel, the objectors have already begun trying to dissuade bishops and standing committees across the church to refuse consent to the diocese’s election. This would follow earlier attempts to tar Holt as a bigot by cherry-picking comments from a panel discussion where he was asked to honestly describe a failing.
Perhaps the objectors are really just process purists, and the standing committee just can’t help making little mistakes — though the investment it made in a parliamentarian and a canon lawyer for the November 19 vote must have helped.
It seems more likely that the objectors just can’t imagine that the people really decided that Charlie Holt, an outspoken defender of traditional marriage, should be their bishop. After all, only five of the Episcopal Church’s domestic diocesan bishops still uphold this teaching. In an original field of five strong candidates, Charlie Holt was the only outsider, and the only clear conservative. Many of the leading objectors come from the diocese’s wealthiest and most socially prominent parishes. They are well-connected and respected in the wider Episcopal Church. Echo chambers can be blue as well as red.
Perhaps it’s just unimaginable to the objectors that leaders like Charlie Holt represent the views of hundreds of thousands of Episcopalians, many of them among our church’s most gifted and committed young leaders. Maybe they can’t see that making a place for theological conservatives to exercise leadership in this church will play a crucial role in the long-term work to bridge divides in the Anglican Communion.
Could they have forgotten the 2015 House of Bishops’ Mind of the House Resolution? It said of the Communion Partners, who share Holt’s convictions about Christian marriage: “they are an indispensable part of who we are as the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church. Our church needs their witness.” Do they know of the more than three years of work across our church to foster “communion across difference,” of dialogue across charitable disagreement and arrangements to ensure that those of different convictions continue to flourish and use their gifts for ministry?
Elections only work among people who can trust each other, bound together by mutual loyalty to a greater community. Factionalism, usually abetted by litigiousness, is an ominous sign for any community that aims to be strong enough to form its members in meaningful ways. Perhaps, for a nation as diverse as ours, deep partisan rancor must simply be endured, and we can hope for little more than carefully brokered, temporary truces.
Can’t we expect more of Christians, who have pledged to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3)? We are brothers and sisters, who ask together that God would “look graciously” on us and “guide our minds” (BCP 818) when we choose our leaders.
Charlie Holt has shown remarkable grace and self-control during this ordeal. He has repeatedly affirmed the gifts of his fellow candidates and emphasized his commitment to healing the diocese’s divisions. He said in a recent email to the diocese that the seemingly unending process has brought him to his knees, but also helped him encounter afresh God’s mercy, which flows from the life-giving Cross.
The framers of the Episcopal Church’s system for selecting bishops were not actually cribbing from the American Constitution, despite what people sometimes say. They looked back to the Acts of the Apostles, to a model of prayerful discernment by the whole people of God, with the Holy Spirit’s choice revealed in an open process (c.f. Acts 1:12-26, 13:1-3).
The framers required that the leaders of other dioceses recognize those elected as new bishops “to be of such sufficiency in learning, of such soundness in the Faith, and of such godly character” to exercise this ministry. This was intended to foster interdependence and mutual respect, a nod toward Catholic order, not a means for ensuring ideological conformity on the theological controversies of the day.
The process of elections and consents is rooted in our claim to be part of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. If we, like the apostles, are witnesses of Christ’s resurrection and sharers in the redeeming work his Cross, we should be able to hear and obey the Spirit’s prompting just as they did. Because he has loved us, we ought also to love one another, deferring to each other, even when common decisions challenge our personal convictions. The Episcopal Church will be stronger and more faithful if it lets Florida decide, endorsing its chosen leader for the holy work God and the people have called him to do.