A local church in Georgia that supports LGBTQ rights says it is splitting from the United Methodist Church, becoming the first congregation in the country to act on a growing rift between progressives and conservatives within the denomination.
Asbury Memorial Church in Savannah announced Thursday that it was disaffiliating with the UMC, which moved last year to reaffirm rather than drop a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings, disappointing many liberal-minded congregants.
The church said in a statement that it believes it is the first U.S. church to leave the denomination over UMC's "unequal treatment of LGBTQ people."
It said that the UMC's South Georgia Conference last month voted to allow it to split and that Asbury "looks forward to a bright future as an independent non-denominational church."
A message on the church's website to "our LGBTQ+ community" apologized "for the harm the United Methodist Church has done."
"You are beloved. You matter. We affirm whom you love. You are a gift to the Church. We will keep working to make it right. We need you," it said.
For decades, the United Methodist Church has maintained that homosexual activity is immoral, as it barred gays and lesbians from serving as clergy, and opposed same sex marriage.
UMC leaders last year voted down a move to ease those restrictions, known as the One Church Plan and instead passed what was called the Traditional Plan, which reaffirmed the denomination's existing stance.
The United Methodist Church, with some 13 million members worldwide, about half of them in the U.S., had planned to meet in May to vote on formalizing a schism that would split the denomination in two — one that would continue to ban gay clergy and same-sex marriage and the other taking the more liberal path.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a postponement of the meeting leaving the question in limbo.
A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 60% of United Methodists said homosexuality should be acceptable in society, up from just 51% in 2007. It also found that nearly half (49%) supported legalizing same-sex marriage.
The United Methodist Church is a mainline Protestant denomination created in 1968 in Dallas, Texas, although Methodism dates back to John and Charles Wesley in the 1700s.