Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the Retirement of John the Oppressor - I

He was a lot of things, hero was not among them.

Last week I was contacted by a writer for the local Chicago Tribune tabloid (née The Orlando Sentinel). He wanted to talk about the retirement of John Howe as bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida. The story ran this week with a paragraph devoted to our conversation. Not surprisingly, I was the only critic of the soon-to-be-ex-bishop actually quoted, a reality that probably speaks as much to this bishop’s legendary iron-clad control over his diocese as the fact that most other critics have long since fled this dysfunctional pocket of the Episcopal Church.

Frankly, John Howe was the last thing I wanted to talk about last week or any other week. Whatever personal issues may have existed between the bishop and myself have long since been resolved and largely forgotten. Indeed, in all honesty, I have little to say about the Episcopal Church generally these days. In choosing to return to Central Florida, I knew I’d be giving up any active role in the church given the homophobic policies and fundamentalist tendencies of this diocese. So, I have made my peace with that reality over the past 13 years and moved on, choosing to simply ignore the church, finding spiritual sustenance and pastoral leadership roles outside its ecclesial bounds.

But this interview brought back a lot of bitter memories. The writer was clearly set on running a story that cast John Howe as the embattled heroic leader of an Episcopal Church in Central Florida where wild-eyed young Turks sought to steer the diocese into the column of the latest round of schismatic puritans. However, the truth is a lot more complex and a lot darker than that. John Howe is many things. But a hero is not among them. Indeed, there are good reasons I and many others call him John the Oppressor.

Bush v. Gore, Episcopal Style

Howe was elected in 1989 as the result of a cabal among Central Florida conservatives. In a classic stealth politics style that religious conservatives choose as a matter of course, they used their connections through the diocesan Cursillo program to plan their subversion of the diocesan convention called to replace Bishop Bill Folwell. The retiring bishop had disappointed conservatives during his decade long bishopric by changing his mind on the ordination of women and later on the blind eye he turned toward gay parishioners and clerics in his diocese, the Episcopal version of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. This was hardly an activist bishop and it probably stretches the term “liberal” beyond recognition to apply it to Bill Folwell's bishopric.

The priests Bishop Folwell had welcomed to Central Florida were mostly well educated, urbane souls typical of the Episcopal Church nationally. The conservatives had pledged not to let this perceived drift toward liberalism - which the rest of the Episcopal Church had long since embraced - continue no matter what it took. In the end it took a lot – indeed, no less than the diocese’s very soul.

Howe had enjoyed a limited career as a priest before the election, having spent a short time at an elite private girls’ school as its chaplain before coming to his only real parish experience at Truro Church, Virginia. There Howe assembled a team of charismatic soul mates which quickly managed to turn the veritable old Truro parish into a megachurch complete with twist and shout for Jesus worship and fundamentalist bible thumping, a major departure from the dignified catholic liturgy and measured sermons of Anglicanism. The combination of simplistic theology, orgiastic worship and the self-affirming attendance numbers and accompanying dollars of a growing church marked John Howe as a success in the eyes of his parishioners, one of whom included then-Episcopalian and future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It also made him an ideal candidate for the conservative cabal seeking to take over the Diocese of Central Florida.

There were six candidates for bishop at the convention in late Fall of 1989. In the days before the convention, it quickly became clear that Howe was not the favorite. A second more traditionally conservative candidate, this one a little closer to Earth orbit, was splitting the conservative vote. That was when the miracle occurred.

Two days before the election, John Howe withdrew from the election saying he had discerned this was not what G-d intended for him. Overnight, the prayer chain phone lines lit up with Cursillistas calling their compatriots all over the diocese. They were told that Howe would reenter the race and that if they didn’t want another liberal to win, they’d better all vote for Howe.

Lo and behold, Howe did reenter the race the Friday before the Saturday convention telling the convention that he’d prayed about it and G-d had told him He (sic) needed him to run after all. And the next day, after 13 ballots in which the laity swung increasingly in favor of Howe even as the clergy resisted, Howe managed to win by a single clergy vote on that final ballot, largely carried to victory by the vote of deacons trained in the local diaconal institute over the opposition of the graduate level seminary educated priests.

The ruse had won the day. The conservatives had pulled off their coup. Clearly the evil genius behind the Willie Horton and the Swiftboat Vets ads have nothing on Episcopal conservative strategists. And just as clearly, Central Florida Episcopalians are as easily deceived and manipulated as the American electorate in such elections with the same destructive result.

The fallout was enormous and immediate. Not surprisingly, this was the part of the story the local newspaper omitted. The diocese earned black eye after black eye with juvenile stunts like first inviting and then disinviting Newark Bishop Spong from speaking at the Cathedral, a public relations nightmare soon repeated in the retraction of an invitation to the Orlando Gay Chorus to sing on World AIDS Sunday. In a painful showdown at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in downtown Orlando, a once diverse and welcoming parish split down the middle over the bishop’s politics in a fiery public meeting in which one member, now a circuit judge, whose son is gay described gay parishioners as “the niggers of the 90s” given their treatment by Howe and his henchmen. Once again, Howe’s supporters won.

The resulting hemorrhaging quickly began. Almost overnight an exodus of clergy and parishioners alarmed by the radical right turn of the diocese began leaving the diocese. Some, like the cathedral’s dean who dared to defy Howe on the gay chorus, were ultimately fired. Others simply moved to friendlier climes. Some simply retired. And the clergy who would replace them would be required to meet John Howe’s conservative litmus test to enter the diocese, this based on a very brittle black and white understanding of scripture and a theology with absolutely no clue about historical or cultural context.

Hoist on his own petard

Ironically, in the end Howe managed to be hoist on his own petard. His litmus test had worked all too well. Many of the clergy who came to Central Florida proved to be even farther out on the right than John Howe and by the 1990s were agitating for schism out of an Episcopal Church in which their homophobic, militarist and fundamentalist understandings no longer had a place. In all fairness to Howe, while his rhetoric almost always indicated support for such a position, its ambiguity allowed enough wiggle room that when push came to shove, the diocese remained a part of the national church. As always, disingenuity is almost inevitably the stock in trade of religious conservative politics.

Outraged reactionaries within the diocese responded with cries of betrayal, having relied on Howe’s mixed signals to go out on a limb that Howe thereafter sawed off. The result was a mutiny that would prompt a handful of parishes led by true believer clergy to withdraw from the diocese and the Episcopal Church itself, decamping from their tasteful parish edifices down the street to the shells of abandoned big box department stores. There they would open shop as self-proclaimed faithful remnants of a parody of the rich Anglican tradition now reduced to fundamentalist theology with a thin veneer of Anglican liturgy – essentially Baptists in dresses. And the John Howe whose litmus test they had passed to become clergy in Central Florida would become the devil incarnate in their eyes.

This is the basis upon which the Sentinel story and its sources proclaimed John Howe a noble savior. At best, this is a partial picture of the Howe regime. At worst it is a deliberately deceptive construction of the whole story, a pattern of dissembling which has been modeled by this bishopric and its supporters from its inception. Of course, true believers – of any stripe – rarely need much factual basis to hold to understandings that often defy both fact and logic. So it’s not terribly surprising the tenor of the article cast the retiring bishop as a hero even as he laid the very grounds upon which the mutiny would occur.

But it was among the parishioners that the advent of Howe’s oppressive bishopric would be most deeply felt. Prior to the election the diocese had a reputation for being a fairly tolerant place. The Cathedral had its homeless ministry and celebrated Palm Sunday and Pentecost with the Roman Catholic cathedral across the street. Gay clergy and lay leaders held roles of leadership in many parishes across the diocese and many parishioners felt they had a non-judgmental refuge from the fundamentalist Protestant and conservative Catholic backgrounds many had fled. The diocese’s Institute of Christian Studies featured a critical-historical approach to scripture and the integration of social science and faith development much like that of any accredited seminary and made its classes available to anyone who wanted to take them.

In other words, the Diocese of Central Florida looked an awful lot like the rest of the Episcopal Church whose members have historically tended to be well educated, theologically and socially tolerant, broadly inclusive with a history of involvement in social justice movements, a composite that once drew many parishioners and future clergy like myself. But that would all change with the election of John Howe.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando


 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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