Bishop John Howe

Episcopal Bishop John Howe, who recently announced his retiremenet after 20 years, sits in the chapel at the diocese offices on Robinson Street in Orlando. Feb. 8, 2011. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel / February 14, 2011)

In September 2007, Episcopal Bishop John W. Howe ushered four members of his Central Florida diocese into his small office on Robinson Street. The four men made the 64-year-old bishop an offer: step aside, retire now, and we'll pay off the mortgage on your lakeside home and the difference between what you make now and what your pension would be at the mandatory retirement age of 72.

There's a train wreck headed your way, they said, and we're offering you the chance to step out of the way.

The conservative, evangelical bishop who took over the 15-county diocese in 1990 was deeply embroiled in the issue of gay clergy in the Episcopal Church. He led a group of bishops who opposed the same-sex marriage and ordination of openly gay V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003.

The ordination of Robinson resulted in a split within the Episcopal Church that extended to the diocese in Orlando, where members and clergy in nine congregations were planning to leave and take their church property with them.

Staying as bishop might mean presiding over the disintegration of the Episcopal Church in Central Florida.

The offer to take an early retirement was tempting.

"I needed a month to pray about it," Howe, 68, said in a recent interview. "I came back and told them I was convinced they were right. A train wreck was coming — and that's why I needed to stay."

Three years later, Howe thinks he has held the diocese together, the crisis has passed, and it will be time to retire — voluntarily — in 2012.

"I think we have become more unified than we ever were before. This is a solid diocese," said Howe, who announced his plans last month.

Howe's supporters think the bishop should be remembered more for keeping the Diocese of Central Florida from splintering apart than his position on gays in the church. Under his leadership, there were no mass defections of members and clergy, and no lawsuits over who owns church property like those that plagued other Episcopal dioceses.

"He did hold the diocese together," said the Rev. Jon Davis, rector of Church of the Incarnation in Oviedo, who worked under Howe in a youth ministry for 12 years. "It was because he had sympathy for why people were leaving the church and would not punish them for their beliefs."

Those who left the diocese did so with Howe's blessing. Those who stayed received his support, and the diocese's financial backing, in rebuilding their congregations.

Although Howe has strong theological convictions, he also has the ability to respect opposing views and to form friendships with bishops who supported gay clergy. Bishop Robinson considers him "my brother in Christ."

"My relationship with John is warm and collegial, and over the years our trust for one another has deepened, based on years of 'hanging in there' together," Robinson said in an e-mail. "We are living proof that two Christians do not have to agree on every hot button issue of the day in order to treat each other with respect and to have a good relationship."

The Rev. Canon Ernie Bennett, the diocese's second in command, said he offered to resign in 2003 when it appeared Howe was ready himself to break with the Episcopal Church. Bennett withdrew his offer to quit when Howe made it clear he had no intention of leaving the church. Bennett has since come to admire Howe's ability to accept those who disagree with him.

"He never expected everybody to toe the party line. When people disagree, he always treats them with respect," Bennett said.

Opposing views

Howe's critics argue the opposite. Conservatives were not the only ones who left the diocese. The diocese has become less diverse and less accepting than under Howe's predecessor, Bishop William Folwell, who lined up in favor of gays becoming priests, said Harry Coverston, an Episcopal priest and religion instructor at University of Central Florida.

Howe's evangelical push to increase the number of Episcopalians in Central Florida has largely failed, Coverston says. The diocese, which had about 37,000 members in 1990, now has about 38,000, despite the population growth in Central Florida.