For the first time, the nation's largest Pentecostal and African-American denomination, the 5.5 million-member Church of God in Christ (COGIC), has voted out its presiding bishop.

Gilbert E. Patterson, pastor of Temple of Deliverance in Memphis, Tennessee, defeated the former presiding bishop, Chandler D. Owens, with 59 percent of the vote. The November 14 election, held in Memphis during the 104-year-old denomination's annual Holy Convocation, was the culmination of a hotly contested race that followed a lengthy dispute over Owens's alleged abuse of power.

Owens, who pastors Greater Community COGIC in Atlanta, had claimed that his spiritual authority was analogous to the pope's. The bishop told an Orlando, Florida, circuit court judge in July 1999: "I have the authority to make all of the decisions within the church without any disruption or confirmation. I have a board—a general board—that approves my decisions, but they're still my decisions. Same as the Catholic Church—same identical deal. The pope has the right to send a priest to a Catholic church, and has the right to remove him. I have the same authority."

Claiming the right to make decisions unilaterally, the bishop tried last year to remove pastor Derrick W. Hutchins from his 800-member Orlando Institutional Church of God in Christ. (Owens declined to return phone calls by Christianity Today.)

Owens told Charisma magazine that Hutchins had violated an earlier agreement to give up his pastorate at two other churches, in South Carolina and Tennessee, before officially becoming pastor at the Orlando church. "Brother Hutchins never did receive a permanent appointment from me," Owens said. "As far as I'm concerned, it was like a temporary appointment. He promised to give up those two churches, and he didn't."

Hutchins, however, says that he had only agreed to leave the South Carolina church. Several COGIC pastors lead more than one congregation.

For his part, Hutchins claims that Owens became furious last summer after learning that Hutchins supported a leading rival for presiding bishop: Charles Blake, pastor of the 18,000-member West Angeles COGIC in Los Angeles, the largest individual congregation within COGIC. "I was being groomed as one of his sons," Hutchins said of Owens. "It's just like if you worked for Clinton and Gore and then switched camps. Even though it's church—it's politics.

"My situation is what would be considered the classic case of the abuse of power [Owens] has perpetrated on many others," Hutchins told CT.

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Hutchins said he believed that Blake would institute needed changes in the church. But during the church's convocation, Blake threw his support to Patterson when Patterson advanced to the runoff. Upon Patterson's election, the new presiding bishop made Blake his executive assistant.

Elections for the office have been held every four years since 1968. Owens was elected bishop in 1995 after the death of Bishop Louis Henry Ford. He ran against Patterson in 1996 and prevailed by a single vote.

When Owens attempted to remove Hutchins from his church last summer, all but a handful of the Orlando church's members walked out of the sanctuary in protest when a newly appointed pastor approached the podium. After a string of legal battles in a secular court, a Florida judge eventually ruled that Hutchins had not violated any church laws. Blake, a key witness in the trial, testified that Owens's actions were not in line with the denomination's rules. "Constitutionally, you cannot remove a pastor unless he is charged with some kind of impropriety," Hutchins said.

At denominational headquarters in Memphis after the election, Patterson promised to "bring the general [governing] board back into its rightful position"—a statement many interpreted as the new bishop's guarantee that greater accountability and shared responsibilities are in store.

"I think we see the process of democratization happening with this church," A. G. Miller, professor of religion at Oberlin College in Ohio, told CT. "Black churches have typically developed out of the personality of the individual. They may be looking for a leadership that focuses more on partnership in ministry. Accountability is crucial to any institution."

Patterson also promised to expand the denomination's visibility through international radio and television programming. Patterson already produces Bountiful Blessings, a television ministry aired nationwide. Patterson's new responsibilities include heading COGIC's 12-member General Board of Bishops. Owens still retains his seat on this board.

Related Elsewhere

See also Charisma magazine's coverage, "COGIC Elects New Bishop," and Charisma News Service's article, "Church of God in Christ Votes Out Its Presiding Bishop"

Read more about the Church of God in Christ at the denomination's homepage.

Read a bio of Patterson from The Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Patterson's Temple of Deliverance homepage offers access to his radio broadcasts and to the developing Presiding Bishop site.

Read about Owen's accomplishments from the Church of God in Christ 's Central Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of Georgia.

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