Atlantic Monthly

Great Schism

In Washington, this is a week of two Christian passages: Pope Benedict XVI’s celebration of his 81st birthday, and the burial of Bishop S. C. Madison, leader of TUHOPFAP for seventeen years. One of the largest and most powerful of the “black holiness churches,” TUHOPFAP is known for its street brass bands, cheap and delicious soul food, and mass outdoor baptisms, which involve fire-hoses and huge tanks of water imported from the River Jordan. This morning, members packed TUHOPFAP’s D.C. church, known as “God’s White House,” to bury Bishop Madison and mourn his passing. Many of the women wore white — a sign, perhaps, of the celebratory mood that the church seems incapable of casting off, even at the somber farewell to its beloved leader. In the cafeteria, Saint’s Paradise (“Where our Main Ingredient is Love”), no one cried into his grits, and the church’s signature brass piped its music, major-key, in over the intercom. But a question remains: Who will lead the Church next?

In the past, the Church has decided its leadership in an ecclesiastically nontraditional way — that is, through bitter and intense litigation. When “Sweet Daddy” Walter McCollough died in 1991, Madison took control only after a fight with McCollough’s son Charles, whose followers alleged in District Court that Madison had rigged his election. (Today’s funeral program says the assembly elected Madison by an “overwhelming majority.”) Years of scuffles and squabbles intervened between Bishop McCollough’s death and his successor’s acceptance. A new leader is planned to be elected this week.

The election probably won’t proceed as acrimoniously as last time. But one hopes that it might, both in this succession and in those of other religions. There is a time for inclusivity, and there is a time to fight hard to define and refine doctrines and leadership. When the cardinals elected the present pope, they employed a system impervious not only to corruption but also to public argument and recrimination. The cardinals’ choice, Benedict XVI, has been exemplary in many ways, but their manner of selection could have profited from more of the rancor that animated TUHOPFAP in the early 1990s. Make the election of a new pope the occasion for a purge, for a climactic doctrinal battle whose structure encourages antipopes to arise and purify the ranks of the faithful by stripping away dissidents. The antipopes will wither, just as TUHOPFAP’s dissident wing did; the true church will remain as strong as ever, and the doctrines of Rome will be unambiguous, for the benefit of both those who believe and those, like me, who do not.


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