07 January 2010

A conservative diocese with its own internal divisions

Bishop John Howe ... trying to hold the Diocese of Central Florida together

Patrick Comerford

I was surprised to find this week that there are three dioceses of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in Florida. I’m staying for a week in Orlando, which is the largest city in the Diocese of Central Florida, and is also the cathedral city of the diocese.
The Diocese of Central Florida, which is one of the most conservative dioceses in TEC, is part of Province IV of TEC. The neighbouring dioceses are the Diocese of Florida to the north, and Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida to the south.

The story of diocese dates back to 1892, when the General Convention of the Episcopal Church designated South Florida a Missionary Jurisdiction. William Crane Gray became the first missionary bishop and made his home in Orlando.

The three dioceses of Central, Southeast and Southwest Florida were formed as new dioceses in 1970 through the division of the older Diocese of South Florida. Bishop Henry I. Louttis of South Florida presided at the primary conventions of each new diocese and Bishop William H. Folwell was elected the first Bishop of Central Florida.

At its convention or diocesan synod in Orlando ten years ago in January 2000, the Diocese of Central Florida approved a new vision for the beginning of the millennium that called for revitalising existing congregations and establishing 15 new congregations between 2001 and 2010. In 2003, the diocese set up “From Strength to Strength” – a campaign to fund the new vision approved in 2000. I hope to find out this week how far the diocese has managed to realise this vision, although I fear internal divisions may have sapped some of the energy in the diocese.

A conservative diocese

Central Florida is one of the most conservative dioceses in TEC, and in 2004 the diocese joined the “traditionalist” Anglican Communion Network.

In 2006, the diocese appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Panel of Reference for “immediate alternative primatial oversight,” making it the fifth diocese of TEC to make such a request to Canterbury. Despite the conservative tradition of the diocese and the conservative stand taken by Bishop John Howe, six congregations in the diocese decided to walk away from TEC in 2008 following discussions with the bishop, and joined the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA), which is linked to the Anglican Church of Rwanda.

Bishop John Howe admitted three months of negotiations with priests and parishes who decided to leave TEC were the worst period of his life

Bishop Howe said the three months of negotiations with the priests and parishes who decided to leave had been the worst period of his life. But he said they had reached amicable solutions “There are those who simply have to leave the Episcopal Church for conscience sake,” he said. “I understand that. I don’t agree, but I don’t believe we should punish them. We shouldn’t sue them. We shouldn’t depose the clergy. Our brokenness is a tragedy. The litigation that is going on in so many places is a travesty. And although some seem to be trying to do so, I don’t think you can hold a church together by taking everybody you disagree with to court.”

Staying inside TEC

As other ACN members, including the Diocese of San Joaquin in California, left TEC to join the Province of the Southern Cone, Central Florida withdrew from ACN in 2008. Bishop Howe has since realigned Central Florida with the Anglican Communion Institute, a group that says it wants to remain within TEC while demanding change. In a letter to the Central Florida Episcopalian at the time, the bishop explained he still remained in communion with TEC and with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Later this month [January 2010], at its 41st annual convention or diocesan synod, the Diocese of Central Florida will be asked to affirm the now-completed Anglican Communion Covenant. In a letter sent out in the diocese and published last week [28 December 2009], Bishop Howe urged the synod members or delegates to support the Covenant by voting for a resolution tabled by the Revd Eric Turner.

Central Florida is one of eight dioceses in TEC holding their conventions month – the others are Florida, Newark, North Carolina, Southwestern Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington. But so far Central Florida is the only diocese with a tabled resolution that addresses the covenant in any form.

In his letter, Bishop Howe acknowledged that drafting the covenant has taken a few years and provincial approval will take more time still. “It has been a lengthy process, and it will not be concluded soon,” he wrote.

The earliest time by which TEC as a whole can officially consider the covenant is the General Convention of 2012, but the bishop says dioceses are “free to ‘affirm’ the covenant if and when they choose to do so.” Referring to a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, Bishop Howe added: “I have repeatedly said that I believe the only hope for the Anglican Communion is in following the Archbishop’s lead in drafting and adopting this Covenant. I now urge the delegates to convention to study it and affirm it on January 30.”

Bishop Howe has been the Bishop of Central Florida for the past 20 years, having succeeded Bishop Folwell on 1 January 1990. He was ordained deacon in 1967, priest in 1968, and spent his early ministry as a school chaplain in Connecticut, and in parishes in Pennsylvania and in Fairfax, Virginia. He was also one of the founders of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, a conservative evangelical theological college in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He moved to Florida in 1989 when he became Bishop Coadjutor of Central Florida.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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