In another pivotal moment for the United Methodist Church (UMC), the North Georgia Conference of the denomination witnessed the ratification of disaffiliation agreements for 261 of its churches over the weekend. The conference will still keep about 440 churches.
The disaffiliation vote is a direct consequence of long-standing debates over LGBT issues within the church. The latest tally by UM News shows that this year alone, over 5,000 UMC churches nationwide have voted to split from the UMC.
Why Churches Are DisaffiliatingThe disaffiliation of these churches from the UMC follows a 2019 decision by the national church body which allowed congregations to leave the denomination by the end of 2023 due to disagreements over the "Book of Discipline" related to homosexuality and the ordination or marriage of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” while some progressive conferences have defied the bans.
The ratification process occurred during a special called session of the 2023 North Georgia Annual Conference, described as a solemn day in a press release by the group.
Bishop Robin Dease, leader of the North Georgia Conference, said in a “departing litany” that the two factions had “reached the point at which we feel called to continue our faith journeys separately.”
“I realize how sad this time is for many, including myself,” Ms. Dease told the conference after the vote. “I just hate that those who are leaving us, I will not have the opportunity to meet or to be with.”
Bob Dixon, a lay member of the UMC, said the ones that the decision hurts the most are those “caught in the crosshairs, people that are workers in the church that are not necessarily really trying to win an argument.”
“These folks, they feel like they lost their identity,” he said to the conference. “They lost their identity of the United Methodist Church, and it feels hopeless."
The disaffiliating churches have until the end of November 2023 to fulfill financial and other obligations.
The United Methodist Church's StanceThe UMC’s official stance, according to its website, is that it has long affirmed that sexuality is "God’s good gift to all persons" and has engaged in extensive deliberation on its stance regarding human sexuality.
The 2016 General Conference saw the Council of Bishops proposing a comprehensive review of the Book of Discipline's sections on human sexuality.
In 2019, the Special Session of General Conference voted to maintain the church's traditional stance on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of LGBT persons, leading to outrage by the more progressive churches of the UMC and ire of the more conservative factions.
The UMC differentiates between sexual orientation and practice, affirming relationships only within heterosexual marriage.
It supports laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the church website explains. This stance has led to restrictions on clergy, prohibiting "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from ordination, and banning same-sex weddings on church property.
The Path ForwardThe UMC's impasse over LGBT inclusion and policy has led to calls for separation within the denomination.
The delay of the 2020 General Conference to 2024, exacerbated by the pandemic, has heightened this uncertainty. The Global Methodist Church launched on May 1, 2022, as a conservative breakaway from the UMC amid this frustration.
“United Methodist Church leaders have failed to make timely arrangements for holding a General Conference in 2022, and so have postponed it for a third time,” the Global Methodist Church website states. “Therefore, the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, a plan that would have resulted in an amicable and orderly separation will not be adopted until at least 2024. The Transitional Leadership Council determined it must launch the Global Methodist Church this year so local churches, annual conferences, and central conferences wanting to join it could do so as soon as possible.”
The next General Conference, scheduled for April 23 to May 3, 2024, is expected to address proposals related to restructuring or separation due to these issues.
This development in North Georgia is part of a broader trend within mainline Protestant denominations in the United States, where debates over homosexuality and related issues have led to divisions and the formation of new denominations.
The departure of the 261 churches from the North Georgia Conference marks another turning point in the history of the United Methodist Church, underscoring the complex and evolving relationship between religious doctrine and social issues.