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Congregations leave United Methodist Church over defiance of LGBTQ bans

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant groups in the U.S., is less united than it once was. The denomination has lost about 20% of its congregations in recent years. Many are leaving over the church's stance on LGBTQ people. Here's NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Mainline Protestants, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians have all splintered over sexuality for decades. Now the time has come for Methodists. Back in 2019, the United Methodist Church voted to keep prohibitions on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings. But then a number of more progressive church leaders, bishops and others, said they would no longer enforce those rules. Now more conservative congregations are departing because of that failure to uphold the church's stated belief that, quote, "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." One that wants to leave because of that lack of enforcement is the Fount Church in Orange County, Calif. It's currently a United Methodist congregation with about 50 members.

GLEN HAWORTH: Well, the banner over here - come thou fount of every blessing - that's where we get our name.

DEROSE: Glen Haworth is lead pastor.

HAWORTH: The fount is Jesus, of course, not us. So when we say we're the Fount Church, we're referring to our Lord and not ourselves.

DEROSE: Haworth is a lifelong United Methodist, but he says his denomination in general and in particular the local geographic region, which is called annual conference, have been drifting for years from what he calls traditional biblical teachings on morality.

HAWORTH: Most recent and probably most prominent is the differences of opinion we have with regard to homosexuality, marriage in general, the sexual ethic, also in general. And we believe, as do many Christians, that the Bible is very specific in that teaching, whereas this annual conference has decided that that's not important.

DEROSE: Across the denomination, congregations are allowed to disaffiliation if they pay two years' worth of church dues and fund their pension obligations. But here in southern California, the local annual conference says churches have to also pay 50 cents on the dollar if they want to keep their property. It says it needs the money to fund new United Methodist ministries. The Fount property was just assessed at $6 million. Haworth says that's far more than his nearly 60-year-old congregation can afford.

HAWORTH: In 1964, this property didn't cost $6 million, and to pay 3 million now to the annual conference with 50 members is impossible.

DEROSE: Haworth says he'll try to negotiate a lower price, but he's not hopeful, which means that the Fount's only options may be walking away from their building or taking the annual conference to civil court. He thinks that might be ultimately worth doing over LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.

GRANT HAGIYA: It hasn't been healthy for the denomination to be at odds with each other over this issue.

DEROSE: Grant Hagiya is president of the Methodist seminary here in southern California, Claremont School of Theology. The retired bishop says he understands the Fount's dissatisfaction, but he says what's really at stake here is justice, something he believes even a medieval theologian could support.

HAGIYA: Aquinas would say that if a law is unjust, it's not a law. Laws are human-made, and they can be wrong, immoral. And we believe that this is true of this particular case of exclusion.

KIMBERLY SCOTT: This is a Hammond organ and our drum set.

DEROSE: Kimberly Scott became the new pastor in early July at the 250-member Grace United Methodist Church in south Los Angeles.

SCOTT: We have four different choirs - four different groups that sing, one each Sunday, throughout the month.

DEROSE: Scott says as a queer woman, she's grateful for the bishops and church leaders who are willing to break the rules so she can live out her call to ministry. She says that those rules continue to exist at all is heartbreaking. Yet she's decided to stay and fight.

SCOTT: My family were Methodists in the South. So we were Methodist when Methodist were OK with slavery, right? And my family never left. And so I was like, I can't leave over this. If my grandparents stayed, then I can stay through this to see this to the end.

DEROSE: That end, Scott believes, will eventually be an official change to the rules when the United Methodist Church gathers for its general conference next year.

Jason DeRose, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.