Nov. 19 (UPI) -- The North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church on Saturday approved the departure of 261 congregations that chose to part ways with the denomination due to an ongoing disagreement over LGBTQ rights.
The split was announced by the church in a statement, which added that the requests of four Georgia congregations seeking to be disaffiliated were not ratified. The move leaves apparently 440 churches in the North Georgia Confgerence remaining.
The decision follows one from 2019 by the national United Methodist Church to allow extra time for thousands of congregations to break with the faith before the end of this year after many church leaders took issue with "a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals."
Altogether, about 6,225, or 20%, of the Methodist Church's 30,000 congregations throughout the country have been approved to disaffiliate since the controversy first arose four years ago.
The departure of 261 Georgia congregations accounted for more than 37% of 700 churches that previously made up the North Georgia Conference before 100 churches sued and a Cobb County judge ordered the organization to allow a vote on the exit requests, leading to Saturday's "solemn day," the North Georgia Conference said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Bishop Robin Dease, the leader of the North Georgia Conference, expressed regret over the rift.
"I realize how sad this time is for many, including myself," Dease said. "I just hate that those who are leaving us, I will not have the opportunity to meet or to be with."
The departures will take effect at the end of the year, and the exiting churches will be barred from using the "United Methodist" brand in their new names and logos.
They are also required to pay back any old debt to the church conference and are restricted from pursuing additional legal action against the conference.
For decades, church leaders have struggled to find a balance between scripture and issues of sexuality amid evolving social norms that were challenging and redefining many longstanding religious principles.
Many Methodist faithful predicted a major rift In 2019 after the church strengthened bans on same-sex marriage and clergy members with gay partners.
In May, nearly 200 congregations in the UMC South Georgia Conference departed the faith in another rift over LGBTQ issues.