Pastor disputes judicial decision

by Jordan Green

The pastor has long since given up on his wayward flock at the Hayes Memorial church on Willow Road, and the denomination’s convocational leadership has let the congregation slip from its ranks, but Rev. Clifton Buckrham wants a Guilford County superior court judge’s ruling overturned anyway.

After a dissident faction armed with a decision from Judge John Craig establishing voting membership for the Hayes Memorial church decided to fire Buckrham in January 2005, the pastor took his followers with him to found a new congregation called Resurrection Fellowship. The 140-member congregation currently meets at the Emerald Events Center on East Wendover Avenue, but Buckrham said they plan to acquire property for a proper church.

While clergy from the United Holy Church of America view reconciliation between the two congregations as an unlikely prospect, Buckrham said he sees Judge Craig’s ruling, made in September 2004, as setting a dangerous precedent.

‘“A white judge shouldn’t play around with people’s lives like that,’” said the 56-year-old pastor. ‘“All this is, is a resurgence of Jim Crow legality and the enshrinement of plantation justice. Did God or the framers of the Constitution give him that kind of carte blanche? The black church has been the bulwark of our community when we couldn’t go anywhere else.’”

An opinion by NC Court of Appeals dismissing Buckrham’s appeal was filed on Jan. 17. With the three-judge panel ruling unanimously for dismissal, the pastor’s chances for vindication appear to have been reduced significantly. Court of Appeals cases in which there is one dissent automatically go to the NC Supreme Court, along with those cases the state’s high court accepts for review through petition.

Buckrham said he viewed Judge Craig’s decision as an instance of the state usurping ecclesiastical authority. Judge Craig could not be reached on April 14 for comment.

The Court of Appeals sidestepped the larger philosophical question of church and state separation, deciding that because Buckrham was no longer employed by Hayes Memorial there was no longer any issue of controversy between him in his role as pastor and the plaintiffs.

‘“Whenever during the course of litigation it develops that’… the questions originally in controversy between the parties are no longer at issue, the case should be dismissed,’” the judges wrote, ‘“for courts will not entertain an action merely to determine abstract propositions of law.’”

According to court documents, Hayes Memorial’s joint board notified Buckrham that it had voted to terminate his services in August 2003. Buckrham turned to Bishop Ralph Love, the presiding bishop of the denomination’s Southern Convocation for help. Love imposed a ‘“cooling off’” period, followed with a vote by the full church membership on whether Buckrham should continue as pastor. The courts found that only parishioners whose names were included in a membership list drawn up by Buckrham and his allies were allowed to vote, and the outcome of the vote favored the pastor.

‘“Then the dissidents did not want to abide by the votes,’” Buckrham said. ‘“They locked us out of the church.’”

A series of restraining orders followed with the courts enjoining both the dissidents and Buckrham’s faction from holding any special meeting of church membership until September 2004. Beginning with the attempted lockout, the dissidents launched efforts to create a set of bylaws for use in resolving the leadership dispute. Court decisions on Sept. 24 and 28 imposed various restrictions on who would be permitted to vote at the meeting, according to court documents.

Buckrham said he could accept that a civil court has the right to order a congregation to adopt bylaws as a condition of maintaining its non-profit status.

‘“But when you get to specifying who can be a member you’re getting to the very essence of a church’s doctrine and theology,’” he said. ‘“Civil courts are not to enter church matters that impact ecclesiastical matters.’”

The United Holy Church of America preaches what Buckrham calls ‘“austere moral rules,’” prohibiting its members from engaging in sex outside of marriage, from same-sex marriage, and from the use of alcohol and tobacco.

‘“Those conditions are contrary to our doctrine,’” he said. ‘“The teaching of the church allows the body of the church to exclude those kinds of people.’”

Buckrham said many of the voting members validated by Judge Craig have violated those tenets, citing a deposition by one woman testifying that she resided with a boyfriend. While those ecclesiastical violations might have padded the rolls of the dissident faction, Buckrham alleges that another of Judge Craig’s orders decimated his ranks.

‘“According to our church every fully baptized member can vote,’” Buckrham said. ‘“He set a voting age of twelve, which eliminated about thirty votes in our group.’”

Buckrham said his supporters boycotted the vote that resulted in his removal, considering it a farce. The United Holy Church is awaiting a Court of Appeals decision on which faction will ultimately prevail in a struggle over ownership of the church building on Willow Road, said Love, who as presiding bishop of the convocation acts as the church’s ecclesiastical authority of last resort.

Buckrham acknowledged that continuing acrimony between the two groups makes it unlikely that reconciliation will occur, but said Judge Craig’s decision should be overturned because it threatens the cohesion of the United Holy Church of America’s southern convocation.

‘“That action should be nullified, that allowed the dissident faction to remove themselves from the denomination,’” he said. ‘“You won’t have denominations if that’s allowed to go on. They’re a rebel state.’”

Since Buckrham’s departure, Rev. James Street has become the pastor at Hayes Memorial. Street did not return calls on April 14, which fell on Good Friday in the Christian liturgical calendar.

Dissension like that which has sundered Hayes Memorial is all too common in black churches that tend towards a congregational rather than connectional structure, said Willie Jennings, who teaches theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School. Jennings, who is also an ordained Baptist minister, said that contrary to Buckrham’s assertions he doesn’t see the case as precedent setting.

Jennings added that most preaching in black churches calls for more government intervention rather than less. He added that the cultural autonomy of the black church is well established and faces little danger of being compromised.

‘“Property issues, community issues where churches are locations that are of interest to developers ‘— those become lines in the sand that few governmental agencies would dare cross,’” Jennings said. ‘“It’s less a matter of concern about governmental interference and more a concern about lack of governmental interest in the welfare of black people.’”

Many churches have still not established a stable balance between local and denominational power, he said.

‘“As a Baptist pastor I know both anecdotally and you would probably find historically that in disputes between congregants and pastors, they have often sought the involvement of the courts,’” Jennings said. ‘“Part of the difficulty this points to is the challenge of having churches shaped by local polities and being governed locally rather than being governed by a wider denomination.

‘“If the pastor’s exercising leadership poorly and if there’s no external arbiter then you can run into trouble,’” he added. ‘“It’s not unusual to have the situation in the opposite direction, to really have a pastor held hostage by a difficult congregation. It’s a sad cycle in the black church where a church that has had a string of tyrannical pastors creates a highly complex bylaw structure. Then a few families in the church control the outcomes. It’s most healthy when you have a congregation that has an established and understood set of practices and the pastor fully understands those.’”

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