For decades, the debate about openly welcoming and including LGBTQ+ people has persisted in churches and Christian denominations across the country. Black churches are no exception, nor are they uniquely more divided over the issue compared to white congregations and other church communities of color. 

But in the latest rift over LGBTQ+ people in the sanctuary, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is experiencing a reckoning, with conservatives in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, splitting away on May 1, 2022, to found its own organization — the Global Methodist Church (GMC). The move was announced by GMC in March 2022, following a decision from the UMC to reschedule its General Conference for 2024, where the topic would have been up for a vote.

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“It is no secret that many theologically conservative local churches and even some annual conferences in the U.S. have, for some time, wanted to part ways with the United Methodist Church,” Rev. Keith Boyette said in an April 27 statement on GMC’s website. He’s the GMC’s  chairman of the Transitional Leadership Council. “We applaud bishops and annual conferences willing to confront the reality and necessity of separation, and who are moving forward accordingly.” 

Boyette was previously president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WGA), formed in 2016 as an unofficial traditionalist advocacy group, which took the lead in creating GMC.

Although the new organization’s website makes no direct mention of LGBTQ+ issues, it is widely known that the UMC’s internal debates over affirming same-sex marriages and LGBTQ+ clergy, to name a few hot-button issues, prompted the split.

The decision directly impacts the Black, LGBTQ+, and Black LGBTQ+ faithful alike, including those who aren’t Methodist, as some say it sends yet another signal of religious intolerance and bigotry in the name of God.

Don Abram, founder of Pride in the Pews. Photo courtesy of Abram.

“The message that is sent is that you are not welcomed and you are not loved. But that is a lie straight from the pits of hell,” said Don Abram, founder of Pride in the Pews, a grassroots nationwide nonprofit aimed at celebrating stories of resilient queer faith in the Black church.

Abram, who is based in the Chicago area, added that, through his organization’s work, it’s clear that anti-LGBTQ+ teachings in the church give way to increased anxiety, suicidal ideation and depression among LGBTQ+ people. Even so, he noted, LGBTQ+ individuals and those who affirm them are becoming increasingly organized to foster a sense of belonging in various church communities.

“There is a growing number of LGBTQ+ Christians who are not simply living in the truth of their often intersecting identities but, from the place of that truth, are beginning to push and prophetically challenge the Church to rise up to the call of unconditional love,” Abram said.

Aside from the politics within the UMC, some denominations and congregations rooted in Black traditions, as well as some Black ministers, have experienced their own controversies or internal reckonings over the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion. 

For example, the 2014 viral Andrew Caldwell “I’m not gay no more, I am delivert” moment at a Church of God In Christ (C.O.G.I.C.) conference wouldn’t have had the same meaning if the denomination didn’t generally frown upon homosexuality. Caldwell became a farce, and eventually, an internet celebrity, based on his so-called testimony, which was rooted in the internalized homophobic logic that an individual can “pray the gay away” and that homosexuality is sinful. 

In addition, the subject of LGBTQ+ people in Christianity, in part, resulted in gospel music star Bishop Carlton Pearson losing thousands of members from his Pentecostal congregation and being declared a heretic by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops in 2007. 

At the time, the church Pearson led, the Higher Dimensions Family Church, was one of the largest houses of worship in Tulsa, Okla. Pearson, who supported George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential run, came to believe that God accepts LGBTQ+ people and that they aren’t going to hell. He primarily lost congregants due to his profession of the “Gospel of Inclusion,” which posits that hell isn’t an eternal separation from God but instead could be a “remedial and corrective” state, and that people who sin create hell for themselves on Earth.

As for the Methodist church’s ongoing rift over LGBTQ+ issues, it reflects an ages-old pattern of denominations forming over battles about inclusion, according to Darren Calhoun, a Chicago-based advocate and speaker on LGBTQ+ issues and racial justice in Christianity.

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Calhoun notes that various Christian institutions were formed in response to federal rulings and social moves toward racial integration, with some preferring to keep their educational, residential and faith communities all white rather than truly welcoming Black people and other people of color. 

For example, Calhoun cited Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971. Liberty University was established several years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or religion. The institution has since welcomed Black students over time.

“It’s about the power to exclude in policy and in direct action,” Calhoun said. “It’s disappointing to me, but something that is not surprising given the history. It comes across as being more about political power than it is about righteous indignation.”

According to the United Methodist Church’s news site, the split isn’t as simple as a declaration of differing beliefs and a decision to leave. As part of the formal organization, congregations that decide to become members of the Global Methodist Church must meet certain financial and procedural obligations that could make the process of splitting an expensive one, with issues such as pension contributions, loans, transferring building titles and legal fees all on the table. 

The divide over LGBTQ+ rights could signal where the broader church is headed, now that the United States has legalized same-sex marriage and banned employment discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ+ identity. But the split over LGBTQ+ rights in the Methodist church also comes at the same time as a trove of anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been proposed or passed in state legislatures, such as the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, that bans teaching about LGBTQ+ identities in classrooms.

Looking forward, Abram said that in the short term, some churches may survive while being anti-LGBTQ+, but that it’s not viable for the long haul.

“What we’re seeing, [is] young folks who are deciding that they don’t want to be part of religious traditions that do not affirm them, or allies deciding they don’t want to be part of religious traditions that do not honor and respect the lives of LGBTQ+ folks,” he said, “I really believe we are in the last days of churches that do not affirm LGBTQ+ folks. They might be fine in the next few years, maybe even a decade. But we will see the decline if they do not make a theological shift.”