MISTRUST, fear, hurt, and conflict are so rife in the diocese of Florida that it is currently a “psychologically unsafe environment”. So says a bishop who was brought in to begin a healing proces after years of disputes.
The retired bishop, the Rt Revd Mary Gray-Reeves, who has been trained in mediation, was brought in by the diocese as it sought to bring people together after the retirement, last autumn, of its diocesan, the Rt Revd John Howard, and serial failures to elect his successor.
Bishop Gray-Reeves held listening sessions and received dozens of letters from Episcopalians in the diocese, setting out their concerns and fears. She has now released a summary of what she heard.
Concerns expressed included Bishop Howard’s impact as a leader; allegations of bias and exclusion of LGBTQ+ people, women, and people of colour; and pain over the failure to appoint a new diocesan.
Attempts to elect the Revd Charlie Holt as Bishop Coadjutor, who would succeed Bishop Howard on his retirement, failed — despite Fr Holt’s topping the ballot twice. The reason was objections and claims of discrimination against LGBTQ+ clergy, and concerns about some of his past comments on issues related to diversity and inclusion (News, 28 October 2022). The saga ended last summer, when other diocesan bishops refused to consent to his election (News, 28 July 2023).
“The level of conflict is obviously very high in the diocese of Florida,” said Bishop Gray-Reeves, who is also the managing director of the College of Bishops. “The climate of the diocese is one currently governed by conflict generally, characterised by deep mistrust, fear, hurt, isolation, and lowered functioning, productivity, and innovation. What was expressed in the letters typifies, I believe, a psychologically unsafe environment.”
In the interim, a retired Bishop of Georgia, the Rt Revd Scott Benhase, is serving Florida as a part-time assisting bishop, with help from a retired New Jersey bishop, the Rt Revd William (Chip) Stokes. The diocesan standing committee serves as the diocese’s ecclesiastical authority during a vacancy in the see.
The diocese is holding three “convocations” as part of its attempts to heal divisions. All clergy, and two lay leaders from each congregation, have been invited to attend the sessions.
“These will offer a safe space for diocesan members to engage in processes that will lead to reconciliation between groups and individual members of the diocese, the wider diocese, and the Episcopal Church,” the convocation steering committee said in its online invitation.
“The longer-term objective of the convocations and the homework built into the process is to cultivate tools for reconciliation and healing that will ultimately become part of the cultural pattern in the life of the diocese.”