Louisiana churches leave Methodist denomination amid schism

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NEW ORLEANS, La. — The United Methodist Church, a mainstay of the American religious landscape, has cut ties with 58 churches in its Louisiana conference amid a nationwide schism within the Protestant denomination.

The disaffiliations, approved in a virtual conference session Saturday, were the latest in a series of decisions that many Louisiana churches have made in recent weeks to leave the national congregation. Internal tensions over sexuality and theology have roiled the church.

The congregation’s delegates voted 487-35 in favor of the departures. The disaffiliations required support from two-thirds of the delegates.

Six churches leaving the conference are from the New Orleans area. Another seven churches are from the Baton Rouge area. St. Timothy, which at 6,000 members is one of the largest Methodist congregations in Louisiana, voted to pursue disaffiliation on Nov. 1, The Advocate reported.

The United Methodist Church is the latest of several mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. to begin fracturing amid debates over sexuality and theology. The flashpoints are the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriages and ordaining openly LGBTQ clergy — though many see these as symptoms of deeper differences in views on justice, theology and scriptural authority.

The denomination has repeatedly upheld these bans at legislative General Conferences, but some U.S. churches and clergy have defied them. This spring, the Church’s conservative wing launched a new Global Methodist Church, where they are determined to maintain and enforce such bans.

A proposal to amicably divide the denomination and its assets, unveiled in early 2020, has lost its once-broad support after years of pandemic-related delays to the legislative General Conference, whose vote was needed to ratify it. Now the breakup and the negotiations are happening piecemeal — one regional conference at a time.

In annual regional gatherings across the U.S. earlier this year, United Methodists approved requests of about 300 congregations to quit the denomination, according to United Methodist News Service. Special meetings in the second half of the year are expected to vote on as many as 1,000 more, according to the conservative advocacy group Wesleyan Covenant Association.

Those departing are still a fraction of the estimated 30,000 congregations in the United States alone, with nearly 13,000 more abroad, according to recent UMC statistics.

The Louisiana disaffiliations will take effect after Dec. 31, church officials said. The Louisiana conference will also see a new bishop in the new year, Delores Williamston. She is the conference’s first Black female bishop.