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SC's United Methodist bishop urges patience as denomination splits over LGBTQ inclusion

Following recent LGBTQ bans, Methodists in SC charter path toward inclusion (copy)

Members attend a 2019 special session of the United Methodist General Conference. On May 1, a breakaway denomination, called the Global Methodist Church, formed. File/S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church/Provided

When United Methodist churches convened in 2019 for a global conference to vote on whether to permit same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly gay clergy, there had been some optimism the church could remain united, despite its theological differences.

It now appears the hopes for a united church have died.

The recently announced breakup of the national United Methodist Church over LGBTQ inclusion has brought about mixed emotions from Methodist clergy in South Carolina. The schism has also prompted a call for patience and prayer from the state's Methodist bishop.

The breakaway denomination, called the Global Methodist Church, officially formed May 1, its leaders having been exasperated by liberal churches’ continued defiance of UMC bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

Erik Grayson, the pastor of Aldersgate UMC in North Charleston, also serves as part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a coalition of churches advocating for the formation of the new, more conservative denomination. Grayson, who will begin pastoring a new church in the Upstate in July, said the formation of the Global Methodist Church brings about mixed emotions.

"I love the United Methodist Church," he said. "Yet the UMC, on the denominational level, is very unhealthy. While the church in South Carolina is a respectful place that upholds the discipline, the changes that are underway in the larger church will soon impact the local church. I am saddened by what I fear is coming to United Methodism, but I am grateful that there should soon be a way forward for all involved."

The denomination's Book of Discipline currently calls homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.

While the future remains unclear, Grayson said conservative clergy and laity are looking forward to the new movement.

"There is an awful lot of passion, creativity and prayer going into this new movement of Methodism," Grayson said. "One member of my church recently discovered the WCA podcasts, and she is eagerly listening to every episode. The notion of a new movement is exciting."

In South Carolina, no United Methodist churches have taken any official action to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, a spokesman with the conference said.

South Carolina's bishop is urging the state's Methodists to stay focused on Christ amid the ecclesiastical turmoil.

"I am asking all South Carolina United Methodists to pray for our church, to be patient, and to remain focused on ministry and our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," Holston said in a May 10 statement.

Holston said the church's Book of Discipline lays out the necessary steps for local churches whose members disagree with the book's current language about human sexuality to disaffiliate from the UMC. Holston urged those with questions to contact their district superintendent. 

The South Carolina bishop also acknowledged the May 10 decision from the UMC's Judicial Council that states the church's Book of Discipline offers no provision for an annual conference to disaffiliate from the UMC. The decision notes that the General Conference is the only body that can regulate the process and set the conditions for an annual conference in the U.S. to leave the United Methodist connection. The General Conference is also the only body that speaks for the denomination, Holston added, and that body will not convene again until 2024.

"These are unsettled times that we are navigating, and our hope is that resolution will be achieved when General Conference next meets," Holston said.

The UMC is the latest mainline denomination to wrestle over LGBTQ inclusion. The Episcopal Church split due to, in part, different theological beliefs around homosexuality. In the Palmetto State, the church just concluded a yearslong Supreme Court legal dispute over the ownership of dozens of church properties across the state. The state's top court decided last month that 15 of the parishes that broke away from the main church can keep their properties, while 14 must hand their churches over to the national Episcopal denomination.

Given what has occurred in other denominations, religious experts are not surprised to see things play out similarly in the Methodist church.

The Global Methodist Church has been emboldened by the surge of ultra-conservativism in politics more broadly, said Lenny Lowe, religious studies professor at the College of Charleston.

"I think it is sad to see that the efforts at peaceful discussion and reconciliation have failed internally, but it is ultimately unsurprising that the polarization of American cultural-politics is reflected within the denominations themselves," Lowe said.

Global Methodist Church organizers had originally expected to launch the denomination only after the next General Conference of the UMC. That legislative body is the only one that could approve a tentative agreement — unveiled in 2020 after negotiations between conservatives, liberals and centrists — to allow churches and regional groups to leave the denomination and keep their property.

But the General Conference, originally scheduled for 2020, was already delayed for two straight years by the pandemic. In March, the UMC announced it was pushing off the next gathering yet again — to 2024 — due to long delays in the U.S. processing of visa applications. A little more than half of the denomination’s members are overseas, notably in Africa and the Philippines.

The United Methodist Church claims 6.3 million members in the U.S. and 6.5 million overseas.

Differences over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy have simmered for years in the UMC, and came to a head in 2019 at a conference in St. Louis where delegates voted 438-384 to strengthen bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. Most U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan and favored LGBTQ-friendly options; they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.

In the aftermath of that meeting, many moderate and liberal clergy made clear they would not abide by the bans, and various groups worked on proposals to let the UMC split along theological lines.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.