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Methodist

Historic Methodist rift is part of larger Christian split over LGBTQ issues

Kayla Jimenez
Louisville Courier Journal

Thousands of congregations have left the United Methodist Church amid contentious debates over sexuality, including a dispute over whether to accept gay marriage and LGBTQ pastors.

The rift marks the largest denominational schism in U.S. history. A quarter of the church’s approximately 30,000 congregations  remove themselves from the United Methodist Church as of Dec. 31. The church is one of America's largest Protestant denominations.

The historic rift in the United Methodist Church is part of a larger split in recent years in the Christian religion over issues of gender and sexuality. Similar divides have led to splits among Baptists, Mennonites, Presbyterians and other protestant denominations.

"It's been brewing forever – for at least the last 20 years, " said Jason Bivins, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University.

Meanwhile, the Catholic church is showing signs of an evolving stance on gay marriage.   

'It left us'After historic Methodist rift, feelings of betrayal and hope for future

Oct 12, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, ӣƵ; King Avenue United Methodist Church associate pastor Andy Burns and LGBTQ+ allies protest outside the Ohio Department of Education building as the board hears public testimony on a resolution that opposes proposed changes to Title IX, the federal law that prohibited discrimination in schools on the basis of sex. Introduced by board member Brendan Shea, the resolution lays out an "unequivocal opposition" to the Biden Administration's proposal to expand Title IX's protections to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Other church splits in the past

Baptists, Mennonites, Presbyterians and other protestant denominations have faced schisms in churches over the last two decades over their stances on LGBTQ+ issues.

"In recent years, same-sex marriage has been a contentious subject within many religious groups in the U.S.," from the Pew Research Center.

The Southern Baptist Convention split from the College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina and Amazing Grace Community Church in Franklinville, New Jersey over the churches' stances on sexuality in September 2022.

The Lancaster Mennonite Conference, a group of more than 170 churches primarily in Pennsylvania, left the Mennonite Church ӣƵ denomination amid  in 2018.

A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterian broke from the Presbyterian Church after it  to allow gay clergy members in 2012, Forbes reported.

Six hundred congregations from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America  with the Presbyterian Church after it decided to following its 2009  to welcome gay pastors in 2009, Forbes reported.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is coming together on some issues of sexuality, including gay marriage. In December, Pope Francis declared ordained ministers could give blessings to same-sex couples, for example.

When asked if he was worried about a schism in the United States Catholic Church in 2019, Pope Francis said: "I am not afraid of schisms. I pray they do not happen," according to America Magazine: The Jesuit Review.

Some conservative members of the church have criticized his decisions. Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of a Catholic LGBTQ+ advocacy group called New Ways Ministry, feels differently.

DeBernardo previously said that Pope Francis's "allowance for pastoral ministers to bless same-gender couples implies that the church does indeed recognize that holy love can exist between same-gender couples, and the love of these couples mirrors the love of God."

What about other Christian churches?

There have been other formal divisions over LGBTQ issues in the Christian Church among different denominations – including Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians – in the last two decades, . The splits are largely over disagreements about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.

Christian denominations today are struggling to fully accommodate clergy and congregations with opposing views on same-sex relationships because of cultural shifts supporting differences in sexuality and gender, said Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, a specialist in religious demographics and pastor of an American Baptist church, to the Associated Press.

“A lot of denominations are in the position where you have to make a decision — you can’t be wishy-washy anymore,” Burge said. “That’s the tension they’re facing: how to keep older conservatives in the fold while attracting younger people.”

Bivins teaches many young students who identify as Baptists or Evangelists at North Carolina State University. From his perspective, realignment into nondenominational churches has "a lot more to do with ideological polarization" than generational differences. (Nondenominational churches are Christian congregations that are "not self-affiliated with a traditional denomination and often separate themselves from the strict doctrine and customs of other Christian fellowships," .)

What's next for the Christian Church?

The schism in the United Methodist Church and rhetoric around Christianity during the 2024 election year could influence the future of the church, Bivins said.

But since most people who affiliate with the church have already taken a stance on gay marriage or LGBTQ clergy, he doesn't foresee further separations as monumental as the one among Methodists

"I think battle lines are pretty well drawn in most American churches at this point," Bivins said. "I don’t think there’s going to be any physical antagonism of this nature, but I do think that in really tense election year and years going forward people are going to be involved in conversations about what true religion or what true Christianity is."

FILE - A gay Pride rainbow flag flies with the U.S. flag in front of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan., on Friday, April 19, 2019. As of June 2023, more than 6,000 United Methodist congregations — a fifth of the U.S. total — have now received permission to leave the denomination amid a schism over theology and the role of LGBTQ people in the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File) ORG XMIT: NY487

Contributing: Marc Ramirez, Joel Shannon, Eduardo Cuevas, Jeanine Santucci, Liam Adams, The ӣƵ Network; The Associated Press

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @kaylajjimenez.

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