This schism in North Carolina is just the latest example of the United Methodist Church’s ongoing divide over LGBTQ rights.
Two hundred and forty nine congregations within the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church—about a third of the conference—are leaving the church over disagreements regarding LGBTQ clergy and marriage.
The conference gathered at Methodist University in Fayetteville on Saturday for a specially called session to receive and ratify these requests to leave. The North Carolina Conference is made up of churches from 56 counties in Eastern Carolina, and in the end, 957 voted “yes” to approve disaffiliation and 165 voted “no.”
With the international church coming down in opposition to marriage equality, those churches that are leaving are indicating support for marriage equality, or at least disagreement with the international church’s hard shift on the issue.
The United Methodist Church is one of the largest Protestant denominations in North Carolina, with more than 209,000 members and 784 churches across the state.
The North Carolina conference said in a press release issued on Nov. 19 that “the complete process requires a two-thirds approval vote of eligible church members in each church wishing to disaffiliate and then ratification by a majority of the members of the annual conference.” The press release also noted that most of the local church votes were not unanimous.
These disaffiliations will become effective on Dec. 31, if the church completes all parts of the agreement decided on over the weekend by that date.
This is far from the first time the United Methodist Church has been divided over LGBTQ rights. The church has been debating these issues for its entire existence.
Founded in 1968, the United Methodist Church became “united” as a result of denominational mergers and the decision to integrate African-American jurisdictions. And as diverse as the denomination’s membership is, LGBTQ issues have always been up for debate.
Every four years, Methodists gather for a “general conference” where they discuss and decide on the church’s policies and teachings for the next four years. In 1972, the denomination passed its first statement on homosexuality and voted to add language to the church’s law stating that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” They also decided that gay ministers and marriages were not allowed in their churches.
This statement was controversial within the denomination even at that time, as there was a growing Methodist advocacy movement that was pushing for LGBTQ rights, which included ministers such as Cecil Williams, a Black man, and Lloyd Wake, a Japanese American. The two men claimed that their experiences as people of color mirrored the prejudice that gay people were experiencing, and so they felt they had to move in solidarity with other marginalized communities.
Despite this growing movement, the church’s statement in 1972 set a precedent.
The North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church has a section on their website where people can explore how to continue in the UMC if their church is disaffiliating.
For a look at all of the churches in Eastern Carolina that voted to disaffiliate, click here.