Thousands of congregations disaffiliate from national church over LGBTQ+ issues
More than 6,000 United Methodist church congregations in the United States have decided to disaffiliate from their national church over LGBTQ+ issues.
The 6,181 church communities across the US have sought to separate from the United Methodist Church (UMC) over division within the denomination in relation to allowing LGBTQ+ people to openly serve as clergy and ministers to consecrate same-sex marriages.
Back in 2019, the UMC upheld its ban on ordaining LGBTQ+ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriages at a special session of its General Conference, in a 438-384 vote.
However, since then, a number of liberal churches have gone ahead with ordaining LGBTQ+ clergy despite the ban.
As division deepened between liberal and conservative congregations, church leaders delayed action which would see the denomination split along theological lines on the issue of human sexuality.
This has resulted in traditionalist churches disaffiliating from the UMC and either moving to the conservative Global Methodist Church, which was founded in 2022, or becoming independent entities.
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According to an annual tally kept by UM News, 4,172 out of the more than 6,000 congregations which have left the church did so in June of this year and the majority of congregations which have split are located in the south and midwest.
The total departure figure represents a loss of around one fifth to the overall US UMC membership.
Speaking with the Associated Press, bishop Thomas Bickerton – president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops – said he does not think “any of us want to see any of our churches leave”.
“We’re called to be the body of Christ, we’re called to be unified. There’s never been a time when the church has not been without conflict, but there’s been a way we’ve worked through that,” Bickerton continued, adding the church offers its blessings to congregations which want to “live out their Christian faith in a new expression”.
In Texas, there has been a mass exodus of UMC congregations with 546 of the 1,260 Methodist churches in the state — equal to around 45 per cent — leaving the denomination.
Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe, a senior pastor at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in the state’s largest city Houston, said the divisions within the church reflect wider society.
“It parallels this moment in the broader world,” he told the Texas Tribune.
“It’s a hard time to bring people together. We really reflect the brokenness of the culture and the world.”
‘The United Methodist Church has clearly fallen away from the doctrine’
In midwestern state Iowa, the split has seen around 11 per cent of congregations leave the Iowa Annual Conference and move to another Methodist denomination or become independent.
Speaking with the Sioux City Journal, Rev. Todd Schlitter – pastor of Wesley Global Methodist Church which was formerly Sioux City’s Wesley United Methodist Church – said there had been a “long-standing division” within the church.
“We believe that the United Methodist Church has clearly fallen away from the doctrine, discipline and spirit from which they first set out,” the pastor told the publication.
He continued: “We are open to all people but we don’t endorse every lifestyle choice and behaviour.
“Just like in all of our relationships, isn’t it true that you love people that you don’t always agree with or affirm their current lifestyle choices?
“We welcome all. The mission of the church is inclusive. But the message of Jesus points to the truth, you know? Christ is the way, the truth and the light and we let him be our measure and our standard.”
Split ‘extremely wounding to LGBTQ persons’
For LGBTQ+ people who are already members of the church, the split has been an upsetting experience.
Mountain Sky region bishop Karen Oliveto, who became the UCM’s openly lesbian bishop in 2016, said in an email to US News & World Report that the schism is “extremely wounding to LGBTQ persons” in that “our very personhood is being used as a wedge to disrupt unity in the church”.
Bishop Oliveto added that despite disagreement from conservative fractions of the church over teachings on marriage and sexuality, sometimes “the Holy Spirit runs ahead of us and gives us a glimpse of the future to which we are called”.
“This is certainly the case across the denomination, where LGBTQ persons have been examined at every step of the ordination process and found to possess the gifts and graces for ordained ministry,” the Bishop continued.
It is estimated there are more than six million United Methodist Church members across the United States and 12 million members worldwide.
At the United Methodist Church’s 2024 general conference, changes to church law are expected to be debated, which could allow for same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy.
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