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Holier Than Thou? The Church of God in Christ Fights for Its Roots.

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Is Church of God in Christ Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake soft on homosexuality and too cozy with loose-living celebrities? Is he taking his denomination -- the biggest Pentecostal body in the United States -- far away from its roots as a “holiness” church?

Or is he ushering in much-needed modernizations and establishing a greater national profile for a storied organization that essentially birthed the black gospel scene, set the standard for black preaching and made exuberant worship -- including dancing -- the norm in Pentecostal and charismatic churches today?

These questions are on the minds of many of the leaders and delegates who will gather in Memphis this week for the Church of God in Christ’s week-long Holy Convocation -- which, this year, also serves to celebrate the denomination’s 100th anniversary.

A group of COGIC leaders, including a former presiding bishop, Chandler D. Owens of Marietta, Georgia, is vying to unseat Blake at the convocation, and while some of these leaders cite a constitutional crisis as the main reason for their opposition to Blake, behind the scenes the debate revolves around homosexuality and COGIC’s identity and heritage as a church with strict standards for morality.

The predominantly black Church of God in Christ has its roots in the 19th-century Holiness movement, which inspired COGIC’s founder, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, to seek “total sanctification” -- a state of being in such an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that one experiences near-total victory over sin. Holiness followers practiced a strict moral code and sought to be distinctly different from “worldly” people, even though their beliefs often made them an object of derision in their communities.

Mason preached an uncompromising message of sanctification when he launched his ministry in the 1890s, but he also sought to revive the fervent worship and prayer of slave religion, which many educated blacks disdained as primitive and undignified. Dancing, stomping, exuberant singing and heartfelt prayer characterized the worship of COGIC congregations, which were built from some of the poorest members of society, both white and black. Mason’s parents were freed slaves, and he saw more power in their faith than in the churches of sophisticated seminary-trained pastors. Mason’s ministry, in fact, would be marked by miracles and revivals in which thousands were saved.

In 1906, Mason received the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the “evidence” of speaking in tongues at the Azusa Revival in Los Angeles that birthed the modern Pentecostal Movement. Mason began preaching about speaking in tongues, causing a split in his young church organization. While two denominations were birthed from the split -- COGIC was legally organized by Mason in 1907 -- COGIC has been by far the more successful, with 7 million members worldwide.

Today COGIC is one of the oldest, most respected Pentecostal organizations in the world. While it is best known for small churches -- often centered around a few faithful families and located in the roughest parts of urban areas -- in recent years, leaders such as Bishop Blake and the late Bishop Gilbert E. Patterson have built megachurches with all the amenities, programs, wealth and notoriety of non-denominational Pentecostal and charismatic churches with celebrity pastors.

Bishop Blake, senior pastor of the 24,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, was named head of COGIC in April after the death of Presiding Bishop Patterson. Many younger members of COGIC see Blake as a refreshing departure from outdated holiness teachings -- such as strict codes for dress and prohibitions on activities such as going to the movies or listening to secular music. Blake has pushed for greater financial accountability in COGIC and has launched an outreach for African children affected by HIV/AIDS at his church. (International ministry has never been one of COGIC’s strengths.)

Elder Steve Jamison of Columbus, Mississippi, leads a faction that is threatening legal action if COGIC’s General Board of bishops doesn’t allow a public vote for presiding bishop at the convocation. Jamison believes Blake was appointed presiding bishop in April in violation of the organization’s constitution. That document, he says, calls for election of the presiding bishop by the “General Assembly” -- the estimated 50,000 COGIC delegates who come to Memphis for the Holy Convocation, which is always held in early November.

Jamison, a longtime pastor, has sent several letters to COGIC’s General Board protesting Blake’s appointment as presiding bishop. While the letters revolve around constitutional issues, they cite other objections to Blake’s leadership.

“I am afraid that Bishop Blake’s leadership will cause us to lose our distinct identity as champions of holiness,” Jamison wrote in an October 3 letter to COGIC’s General Board, Board of Bishops and General Assembly. “And if we lose that peculiarity and become like everyone else, God will have no real use for us. In our last few gatherings, we have had men of opposing faiths and doctrines forced upon us… It is also important for us to remember that the Church of God in Christ did not become the largest black Pentecostal movement in the world by compromising its standards to accommodate celebrities and other denominations.”

Jamison appears to be taking a jab at the various celebrities who attend Blake’s church, including Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson and Stevie Wonder.

Jamison elaborated on his opposition to Blake’s leadership during an interview with Bible Girl. “The Church of God in Christ was always noted and known for its position of holiness,” Jamison said. “We believe that chastity and that even our speech and our conduct ought to represent the Scriptures. The Scriptures give us how we should live, how we should conduct ourselves -- that as children of God, we should not be a part of certain activities, sinful situations, questionable situations -- and Bishop Blake’s church does not reflect the holiness message and the holiness message that this church was founded on.

“How do we allow movie stars on television, on movie screens all across the nation, to curse, to use foul language, to be seen in illicit situations? How do we allow people to tell filthy jokes on stages? Yet they boldly say on TV, Bishop Blake is my pastor. I feel that by that process, the church is defamed. The church is let down.”

Jamison sidestepped questions about Blake’s attitudes toward homosexuality. Discussions about Blake’s supposed views can be found in online forums -- though publicly, Blake has always strongly supported COGIC’s stance that homosexuality doesn’t accord with Scripture. Rumors that he’s soft on homosexuality appear to center, in part, on his associations with leaders of more liberal church groups -- and the fact that the openly gay pastor of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, preached at West Angeles Church of God in Christ. Blake has defended Gomes' visit as an act of courtesy and reciprocity for being allowed to preach at Memorial Church. At no time, Blake writes, did Gomes promote his views on homosexuality at West Angeles.

“The Bible calls homosexuality an abomination before the Lord,” Jamison told me. “It is different from all other sexual sins -- fornication, adultery -- those are sins, true enough, but they are within the normal confines of human activity… But when a man, the Bible says, leaves the natural use of the woman and burns in his lust for another man, it completely shifts and changes the reason God made that man…So I think in that case, it is abominable.

“I don’t know if Bishop Blake has that kind of lifestyle or not. I wouldn’t want to mistakenly talk about that.”

Blake, who is married, wrote in his defense of Gomes’ visit to his church that “homosexuality has never been and will never be my temptation. But all sin is sin. The practice of homosexuality is a sin. But it is not the only sin. I have also stood for forgiveness, mercy, and respect for all human beings.”

Jamison is willing to talk at length about what he believes to be a compromised moral standard in Blake’s megachurch. “Bishop Blake appeals to folks who are not ready to be saved but want to be part of a church and feel good about it,” Jamison said. “And so, this is a very lucrative aspect in our community. Those movie stars, those people who live the Hollywood lifestyle, who live the glamorous lifestyle, who have money to spend and want to use their money to ease their conscience -- who want to use their money to send to Africa to make themselves feel better and also pay a preacher well not to bother them. They like this type of setting.”

J. Neaul Haynes, COGIC's first assistant presiding bishop

Jamison and his supporters fear that Blake’s backers will, through a constitutional maneuver, avoid holding an election for bishop at the convocation. If this happens, Jamison says, “We will bring injunctive charges [in court] against those who block the vote.” Three other bishops are seeking to be presiding bishop, including Dallas' J. Neaul Haynes, the second-ranking bishop in the Church of God in Christ.

Another candidate is Bishop Chandler D. Owens of the Atlanta area, who holds the distinction of being the only COGIC presiding bishop who was voted out of office (in favor of Gilbert E. Patterson). Owens told Bible Girl he believes God has kept him alive so he can guide COGIC back to its holiness roots.

Owens said he asked God why he hadn’t died in office, like all of the other COGIC presiding bishops (except Blake, of course). “I questioned the Lord about it,” Owens said. “And the Lord just said to me that he left me here to…bring the Church of God in Christ back to its original posture and roots, so that we will become a separate and a distinct people. And that’s what God said. He called us out from among other people--not because you’re better than those other people, but because you were different, and you were willing to uphold the rules and regulations of holiness.

“And that’s why the Lord revealed to me that he left me alive…to bring the church back, and that I could not do it alone -- that I would need many, many people who thought the same way to help me do this.”

This week’s convocation could reveal whether Owens represents the majority of COGIC’s delegates -- or whether the traditional concerns of the holiness churches, such as modest dress and personal piety, are largely a thing of the past for Pentecostals, even in one of its oldest organizations. --Julie Lyons

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