Amidst a theological rift that is tearing the United Methodist Church (UMC) apart, the North Georgia Conference voted to allow 70 mostly rural Georgia churches to split from the UMC over, in large part, LGBTQ-related issues.
A disaffiliation agreement was adopted by the UMC in 2019.
Under it, through 2023, churches will be allowed to leave the denomination “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 as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow,” Fox News reports.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and members of the Annual Conference, which must ratify the disaffiliation before it is official, prayed for the separatist churches.
“Bless these congregations as they depart,” the bishop prayed. “I pray that we will be partners in ministry and you will do your mighty work of healing division and overcoming rifts.”
According to a report from local affiliate WSP-TV, Conference communications director Sybil Davidson said the UMC supports the “healthy process” for disaffiliation.
“Our denomination has a clear process for disaffiliation, and we are walking alongside the churches that want to take this path,” she said. “While we do not wish to see any church disaffiliate, we are committed to a clear and healthy process.”
“Our hearts are with those who desire for their congregation to remain a part of the denomination, and also with those who choose to leave,” she added.
The Methodist Church was born from disaffiliation, when, in the 18th-century, evangelist John Wesley died and his followers split from the Church of England.
Today, the UMC represents the third-largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The departing churches, some of which will dissolve rather than continue on as independents, make up 9% of the North Georgia Conference’s congregations and 3% of its membership, according to the UMC. The disaffiliation will go into effect at the end of June.
“It is painful when we have division in the church,” Davidson said. “We pray that, above all, the ministry of all churches will be fruitful and serve God well. The United Methodist Church will continue working to be agents of reconciliation in a divided world.”
Glenn Hannigan who has, since 2010, been pastor at Ebenezer Methodist Church in Roswell, Ga, was in Athens for the Conference vote and found the entire affair upsetting.
“Honestly, it was very hard to sit through,” Hannigan told local 11Alive. “It felt as much like a wake as anything. For us, there’s not a celebration, hooray, we’re free. It’s more like, we’re just sorry that this had to happen.”
“It’s been a lack of respect and the ugly words, and in all honesty, I think it’s only gonna get worse,” he continued. “How can we ever take the low road in the church?”
“We have LGBTQ members of our church, we have couples in our church with adopted kids,” he said. “I can’t tell you the feeling… when we voted unanimously.”
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