By Rich McKay
(Reuters) – The United Methodist Church plans to split into two denominations later this year, church officials said on Friday, a schism that follows years of contention over whether the church should end its ban on gay marriage and ordination of gay clergy.
The plan, if approved at the church’s worldwide conference in Minneapolis in May, would divide the third-largest U.S. Christian denomination into two branches: a traditionalist branch that opposes gay marriage and the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy, and a more tolerant branch that will allow same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy.
The split would affect the denomination globally, church leaders said. The United Methodist Church lists more than 13 million members in the United States and 80 million worldwide.
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation in 2015, but that decision applies only to civil, not religious, services. Some denominations, including the Episcopal Church and certain branches of Judaism, have sanctified same-sex unions, while others including the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, have declined to do so.
A council of Methodist bishops in Washington, D.C. called Friday’s move the “best means to resolve our differences.”
New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton, part of the group that drafted the plan, said this was a way to reach an amicable separation.
“The protocol provides a pathway that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone in the process, and graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by David Gregorio)