Georgia church splits from Methodists over LGBTQ dispute

A Georgia congregation said Thursday that it has finalized its split from the United Methodist Church after the denomination’s divisive vote last year to strengthen bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ pastors. Members of Asbury Memorial Church in Savannah, whose pastor describes it as “a welcoming, all-inclusive congregation,” overwhelmingly supported leaving the Methodist church, which rejected more LGBTQ-inclusive practices at its last major conference in February 2019.

The congregation’s pastor, the Rev. Billy Hester, said Asbury Memorial is now officially independent. The United Methodists’ South Georgia Conference approved the separation August 15.

Welcome to the new Asbury Memorial Church, where all people are invited to experience God’s love in worship, sacrament…

“Our LGBTQ members have helped us become a growing, vital congregation in the Savannah community,” Hester said in a news release. “Asbury Memorial has always been a welcoming, all-inclusive congregation and we are excited about our future as an independent non-denominational church.”

A deeper breakup within America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination was expected at the United Methodists 2020 conference but the May gathering was  postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It could be another year before that meeting takes place to consider plans for splitting the United Methodists along theological divisions over LGBTQ inclusion.

In January, the United Methodist Church proposed to split in order to resolve an impasse between two factions within the church that have not been able to agree on gay marriage and clergy  

“The United Methodist Church and its members — after careful reflection, discussion and prayer — have fundamental differences regarding their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice,” a 16-member group of bishops and church leaders wrote in a proposal.

In Savannah, the church formerly known as Asbury United Methodist Church opted not to wait. Hester says LGBTQ members played a key role in helping the church grow and thrive since he arrived in 1993.

CBS affiliate WTOC reports that weddings in the church were discontinued in 2016 in support of the LGBTQ community. The church now says it is looking forward to resuming ceremonies, once the threat of COVID-19 has lessened.

When Asbury’s congregation held a vote in September 2019 on whether to break away from the United Methodists, a total of 309 members supported the split. Only seven members voted to remain part of the denomination.

Formed in 1968, the United Methodist Church claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S.

The first openly gay United Methodist bishop, Karen Oliveto, told CBS Denver in January that the church’s intent to split is personally heartbreaking. “I carry some sadness in this moment,” she said. 

According to Oliveto, however, the issue has been present since the faith’s very beginning. “This has been growing in the United Methodist Church since 1972,” she said. The contention began when progressives within the church took issue with a principal — listed in the foundation of the denominations values — that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Audrey McNamara contributed to this report.

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