The state's largest Methodist church is weighing whether to leave its denomination, entering a process that several dozen other Arkansas congregations had already begun.
The council at Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville voted 18-6 Wednesday to approve an initial disaffiliation request, citing "reasons of conscience concerning human sexuality."
The boiler-plate language is required in order to begin the monthslong disaffiliation process.
Amy Ezell, a spokeswoman for the denomination's Arkansas Conference, confirmed Friday that Bishop Gary Mueller has received the paperwork.
He and others "will be in prayer with them as they discern their future," she said.
As part of the "intent and discernment" phase, Mueller will be in Fayetteville on Aug. 28 to conduct the first of three mandatory "listening sessions." At the conclusion of the third session, a straw poll will be conducted. If a majority of the professing members present support disaffiliation, a church conference will be arranged so that a formal vote can be held.
A July survey of 985 Central members, commissioned by church leadership, indicated a lack of consensus on matters of human sexuality.
In a videotaped message to his congregation, Pastor Carness Vaughan said Wednesday's decision had been made after months of prayer and discussion.
"My heart hurts that we've come to this place as a denomination where we have to make these difficult decisions," he said. "With all of my heart I wish it were not so. But the turmoil surrounding our collective understanding of marriage and sexuality, the disagreements surrounding pastoral accountability within the denomination, the struggles surrounding deep theological differences and the divisive trajectory of our denomination -- they've all made it impossible to ignore."
In order to break away, at least two-thirds of the confessing members in attendance must vote in favor of disaffiliation.
Once that happens, local church trustees must complete a disaffiliation agreement with the Conference Board of Trustees. Among other things, it would require the congregation to submit unpaid tithes, if any, to the Arkansas Conference, plus an additional tithe -- or 10% -- of contributions the church has received to cover its annual spending plan or budget in a preceding 12-month period.
The decision also would need to be ratified at the next session of the Arkansas Annual Conference. A special session is scheduled for November.
With 6.3 million U.S. members, the United Methodist Church is the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.
It's also the second-largest Protestant denomination in Arkansas, with 117,440 members and average attendance of 43,765 in 2020.
Thus far, 60 of Arkansas' roughly 615 United Methodist churches are in the discernment process, Ezell said. A few others began it, but later decided not to proceed, she said.
On July 31, members of First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro voted 944 to 412 to disaffiliate. The departure, if approved, would deprive the denomination of its second-largest Arkansas congregation.
With average attendance of 1,577, Jonesboro has been among the nation's 100 largest United Methodist churches in recent years. In Arkansas only Central, with average attendance of 1,886, is larger.
Divisions over homosexuality have existed within the denomination for at least a half-century and the issue is debated at General Conference every four years. Thus far, progressives repeatedly have been outvoted, most recently in 2019.
According to the Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination's laws and doctrines, all people are "individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God." Nevertheless, the church "does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
"Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" are not supposed to be certified, ordained or appointed to serve in the church. Celebrations of "homosexual unions" are forbidden in Methodist churches and its ministers are prohibited from conducting them elsewhere.
The church's teachings have led some progressive congregations to cut ties with the denomination. Conservatives also have broken away, accusing bishops in some jurisdictions of failing to uphold longstanding church doctrine on sexuality and other matters.
Asked in the July survey about the Book of Discipline's existing stance on marriage and sexuality, Central members were evenly divided: 38.43% said they strongly agree with it and 38.43% said they strongly disagree. Those in between were also split: 10.69% said they somewhat disagree with the current stance, while 9.51% said they somewhat agreed. The remaining 2.94% neither agreed nor disagreed.
Weekly churchgoers were more likely to support the relevant Book of Discipline provisions than people who rarely if ever attend. Members younger than 40 were more likely than their elders to disagree with the denomination's current position.
Overall, 56.44% strongly agreed that their "understanding of the Bible aligns with those set forth in the Book of Discipline," while 14.21% said they somewhat agreed. Another 9.04% strongly disagreed with the statement, while 9.24% somewhat disagreed. The remaining 11.07% neither agreed nor disagreed.
The survey of 985 members, conducted by Main Street Analytics between July 13 and July 29, had a margin of error of +/-2.72%, it stated.
The church has more than 4,000 members; supporters and opponents of disaffiliation had urged congregants to vote.
Survey participants were invited to leave comments.
Nearly 600 did so; most stated their opposition to disaffiliation. The survey results, including the comments, can be accessed at centraltolife.com/discernment-process/ by clicking on "Survey Results".
Bill Kincaid, a longtime member and one of the organizers of United for Central, said there's no groundswell of support for leaving the United Methodist Church, let alone the two-thirds supermajority that would be required in order to disaffiliate.
"You're going to put folks through an exhausting, anxiety-producing process and, at the end of the day, you're just going to widen divisions," he said. "We felt like it was not healthy for our congregation to go down that path."
But members of Central Wesleyans said they were "grateful" for the church council's decision.
"Their vote sends a clear message that, as a church, we need to be able to discuss ALL of the evolving issues that present across the whole denomination, from the theological differences, to what is being taught in our seminaries, to the broken governance," they said in a written statement.