(Savannah Sicurella/Staff)

When the United Methodist Church voted in 2019 to maintain its opposition of same-sex marriage and the ordaining of LGBTQ clergy, a wedge formed between progressive and traditionalist factions. One year later, an end to the tension suddenly appeared in sight. 

A board of traditionalist, centrist and progressive clergy introduced a protocol to restructure the Methodist church by separating into two branches: the current denomination, under which progressive and liberal expressions of Methodism would stay, and a new traditionalist denomination. Global church leaders were slated to vote on the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation in May at the 2020 General Conference, the church’s top legislative assembly.

Then the coronavirus pandemic emerged. Two months before the delegates could meet for the 10-day conference, organizers postponed it until fall of 2021, delaying any decision-making on the protocol and leaving the denomination-wide acceptance of LGBTQ Methodists in limbo. 

This uncertain period is frustrating for Rev. Laura Patterson, a pastor at Oconee Street United Methodist Church in Athens. Oconee Street is the only reconciling ministry in Athens-Clarke County, a label given to Methodist congregations inclusive to all sexual orientations and gender identities. 

Progressive Methodists often feel tired of having the same conversations over sexuality, particularly during an ongoing global health crisis, Patterson said, not speaking on behalf of the entire congregation. The delayed vote only exacerbates this apathy, as it leaves progressive congregations stuck in an endless loop of sexuality-based conversations that — amid a pandemic and new election cycle — feel overplayed. 

One area of concern for most clergy people, however, is the moratorium on complaint proceedings included in the protocol, Patterson said. The stalled vote doesn’t just delay the schism within the church. It delays a provision to discontinue punishments for clergy conducting same-sex weddings, ordaining or appointing "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" or engaging in any other LGBTQ-affirming conduct that is "incompatible with Christian teaching” after the adjournment of the 2020 General Conference, according to the protocol legislation.

The inclusion of the moratorium was a change for the church, given that the 2019 vote implemented a minimum one-year suspension for any clergy member who performs a same-sex wedding. But as the protocol sits in limbo, so does the moratorium, and all punishments remain in place. 

“Even if the policy hadn’t officially changed, we were going to at least stop punishing people for it. And that there was an end to the conflict in sight,” Patterson said. “And so the fact that it’s been delayed is just more — it’s frustrating.”

Patterson reckoned with this after someone she did not know approached her to conduct their same-sex wedding. She declined, as she typically does not lead weddings for strangers, but it dawned on her that doing so would pose a threat to her pastoral role. 

“That’s kind of been the only time that I’ve been actively been like ‘Oh, man, I wish the protocol passed,’” Patterson said. “I wish we had General Conference, because everything else is a bigger deal. This is a fabricated situation that we’re in in the midst of very real situations.”

Turning to new issues

Patterson feels the delay has been detrimental to congregations looking to expend their energy elsewhere — there is no point in rehashing conversations over sexuality against the backdrop of an ongoing health crisis. 

One Methodist congregation had enough of the push-and-pull over sexuality after the 2019 vote. In September of that year, Asbury Memorial Methodist Church in Savannah held a churchwide vote to disaffiliate itself from the denomination, with 309 members for and seven members against.

Exactly one year later, the South Georgia Conference, Asbury's governing body, approved the disaffiliation, and the newly-independent congregation changed its name to just Asbury Memorial Church. Asbury is believed to be one of the first congregations in the U.S. to separate itself from the Methodist denomination over LGBTQ issues, according to the church’s initial announcement of the split.

Inclusivity and diversity were always important parts of Asbury's core values, compounded by the denomination's history of siding with progressive social justice issues, said congregation pastor Rev. Billy Hester. The church was always an outlier among its mostly-conservative governing body. 

After spending years waiting for the denomination to “come around” on its stance on LGBTQ issues, Asbury sent 16 or 17 church members to the 2019 conference “hoping to see history,” Hester said. When the vote to affirm the church's bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating same-sex marriage passed, Asbury knew they had to take action.

“We’ve also spent so much time and energy on this issue,” Hester said. “There are a lot of other social justice issues we want to focus on too, and this was draining us. In our mind, it was a no-brainer; it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Asbury’s newfound independence has attracted new members, and the church just led its first post-disaffiliation new member class induction over Zoom. Hester no longer has to worry about telling new members about the denomination’s stance on LGBTQ issues, which typically would drive them away. 

A part of the more progressive North Georgia Conference, Oconee Street has no intention of disaffiliating itself from the denomination, as it expects the protocol to pass, Patterson said. Asbury’s split was halfway strategic, given the conservative nature of the South Georgia Conference — there likely was a fear that the governing body would become part of the new traditionalist denomination, Patterson said.

While Oconee Street waits for the rescheduled conference, the congregation is shifting its energy toward working in areas of racial, economic and immigrant justice, Patterson said. 

Oconee Street’s racial justice task force is working on a bail fund and discussing reparations in its ongoing budget, and the in-house clergy is also doing spiritual work on dismantling white supremacy as white people — self-examining and unlearning. The church is also involved in free physical and mental health clinics and the Our Daily Bread volunteer kitchen.

All statements made by Laura Patterson do not reflect the views of all members of the Oconee Street congregation.