Hundreds of congregations of the United Methodist Church voted to leave the denomination Saturday, and remaining congregations have just six weeks left to decide whether to leave or stay amid the schism over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, furthering a theological divide that has split up some of the largest Protestant churches in the United States in recent years.
Four years after the United Methodist Church decided to allow churches to disaffiliate from the denomination over the “current deep conflict” within the church regarding homosexuality, 261 of the nearly 700 congregations from the UMC’s North Georgia Conference opted to leave on Saturday.
The UMC previously voted in 2019 to reaffirm its stances against LGBTQ clergymembers and same-sex marriage, prompting more than one-fifth of the church’s nearly 30,000 congregations to split from the denomination as of August.
The Episcopal Church, which has more than 1.6 million members, angered conservatives when it ordained an openly gay minister in 2003, prompting some dioceses to vote to leave the church and conservatives to form the separatist Anglican Church in North America in 2009, which currently has more than 120,000 members across 977 congregations.
More than 600 congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has more than 3 million members, split following its 2009 decision to welcome gay pastors, leading some conservative congregations to form the North American Lutheran Church, which has more than 140,000 members.
More than 120,000 members comprise ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which broke from the 1.1 million member Presbyterian Church in 2012 over its decision to allow gay clergy members.
Transformation Ministries, a network of churches in the Pacific Southwest, split from the American Baptist Churches USA in 2006 due to theological differences, including accusations that the parent denomination did not sufficiently enforce church rules against homosexuality.
Congregations have until the end of 2023 to split from the UMC “for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The decision of 261 UMC North Georgia Conference congregations to leave the denomination will reportedly take effect at the end of November. Following the vote, conference leader Bishop Robin Dease stated: “I realize how sad this time is for many, including myself. I just hate that those who are leaving us, I will not have the opportunity to meet or to be with.” The conference called the Saturday meeting a “solemn day” in a press release. Requests to leave the church are subject to ratification by the congregation’s regional conference. Requests by four congregations to leave the denomination were rejected in North Georgia following “discussion by the members of the Annual Conference,” according to the conference’s press release, though a reason was not specified. In May, 193 churches in the UMC’s South Georgia Conference disaffiliated from the denomination.
The last time so many denominations underwent schisms was in the 19th century when some denominations split over slavery, religious historians told CNN. In the 1830s, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches rejected motions to censure slaveholders, prompting some abolitionist members who refused to fraternize with slaveholders to form their own churches, historian Joshua Zeitz wrote for Politico. The Southern Baptist Convention—which is home to 13 million members today—split from the Baptist church in 1845 after northern Baptists refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries.
Tensions over LGBTQ issues have also taken hold in the Catholic Church, which has been increasingly criticized by conservatives over the leadership of Pope Francis, who is perceived as more welcoming to LGBTQ Catholics than his predecessors. Since ascending to the papacy in 2013, Francis has often struck a softer tone on LGBTQ issues than his predecessors. In July 2013, Francis famously asked: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” He has since supported civil unions for same-sex couples and said that God loves gay Catholics, though he has reaffirmed traditional church teachings that marriage is between a man and a woman and homosexual acts are sins. Francis approved a Vatican document on Oct. 31 stating transgender Catholics can be baptized. Last month, in opposition to Francis’s actions supporting the LGBTQ community, conservative church officials led by Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, reportedly viewed as the leader of the church’s conservative opposition, held a rival meeting to the pope’s major Synod on Synodality gathering of church leaders. Burke has accused Francis of having the “harmful goal” of reshaping church teachings. Francis has previously addressed the church’s divisions, stating he is “not afraid of schism” but hopes the church will not split.
“Given that we have been at an impasse, this is a grace-filled way to move forward. For one, LGBTQ lives will no longer be held as scapegoats for divisions in the church,” the UMC’s first lesbian bishop, Karen P. Oliveto, said after the UMC proposed splitting into separate entities.
261 Georgia congregations leave the United Methodist Church over a divide on LGBTQ issues (CNN)
The Methodist Church will probably split in two over homosexuality, and that’s bad for all of us (CNN)
Why You Should Be Worried About the Split in the Methodist Church (Politico)