There may be “I dos” in the future at Savannah’s Asbury Memorial Church.
Several years ago, the congregation decided not to perform any weddings at the church until they could do so for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
Now they can.
Recently the church, which has between 400 and 500 members, split from the United Methodist Church and is now nondenominational.
“This is a new phase in our church’s life,” said the Rev. Billy Hester, senior minister and a lifelong United Methodist. The denomination has always been “leaders in most social justice issues,” he said, but in terms of “the gay issue, we’re behind the times in not doing the right thing.”
He said about 35% of his congregation is LGBTQ.
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and that non-celibate LGBTQ clergy shall not be ordained as clergy; and same-sex weddings cannot be performed in the denomination’s churches or by its clergy.
Both carry the risk of disciplinary action.
The denomination has been divided over that issue for decades and reached a crossroads during a contentious special session of the General Conference in 2019 in St. Louis. The gathering of delegates from around the world led to a stricter adherence to the Book of Discipline’s stance on homosexuality.
Janet Wagner, a choir member at Asbury Memorial and chairperson of the church council, supports the decision to split from the UMC.
“In the way I understand God, there is no place for humans to judge other humans,” said Wagner, a small-business owner, who joined the church in 2004. “That is what discrimination does. So this is a moment of liberation for our congregation and I was very happy to be able to do my part in making that happen.”
Another member, Randy Canady, agreed.
Canady, who is gay, joined the church in 2001.
Canady, who works as the church administrator, said he and his husband, who also is on the staff, felt “very comfortable with who we were as a couple. From Day 1, we just felt like we could be at ease and we could worship more freely being who were are and not wear a mask.”
During the August virtual annual meeting of the South Georgia Conference, approval was given for seven churches to disaffiliate, which lets churches break ties with the denomination.
The South Georgia Conference includes nearly 600 churches and covers areas including Columbus, Macon and Statesboro, according to its website.
Each of the seven churches is at a different stage in the process. Once the requirements for disaffiliation have been met, the church will be released from the trust clause and will own its property, according to South Georgia Conference officials.
Nationally, “we’ve had churches leaving the denomination for really the last decade and not on the same side of the issue,” said David Thompson, coastal district superintendent for the South Georgia Conference. “They’re on both sides of the issue. We have churches that are very traditional that are tired of the arguing. We have churches that are very progressive that are tired of the arguing. The continuing debate has caused them to reach the point where they just need to go. They made that decision and we understand it.”
Thompson said six of the seven churches are considered traditional, while Asbury Memorial is considered progressive.
Asbury Memorial’s Hester said the congregation’s decision to leave the denomination has been several years in the making. The vote was 309 to 7.
The Savannah church’s policy on marriage meant Hester’s eldest daughter, Chelsea, had to marry her husband in another church, “but she was very supportive” of the reason why.
One of the first things Hester wants to do is have a renewal of vows ceremony for couples — gay and straight — who couldn’t marry in the church.
“We have put so much time and energy on this one issue that it has taken away from the energy we could have put on other issues like racism,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to getting past this.”
New dates are set for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which was postponed because of the COVID-19 health concerns. The meeting, which will draw delegates from around the world, will be held Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021, at the Minneapolis Convention Center. United Methodists represent one of the largest mainline denominations with more than 12 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S. and more than 467,000 United Methodists in Georgia.
According to the denomination’s records, the start date of the 1800 General Conference was moved up from Oct. 20 to May 6 because of the prevalence of yellow fever during the fall.