The United Methodist Church has long been riven by bitter divisions between its U.S. and international congregations over whether to allow same-sex marriage and ordain gay clergy.
Now it appears the church -- whose 7 million U.S. members make it the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination -- is heading for a permanent split.
On Friday its leaders announced a plan that would lift the LGBTQ restrictions and create a new, more conservative denomination for any congregations that wish to leave. The new denomination, which has yet to be named, would be free to make its own rules.
The bishops who wrote the plan released a statement calling it "the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity and respect of every person."
The deal, which is expected to be approved in May at the next major conference of church leaders, would bring most major branches of Protestantism into agreement on issues of sexuality -- and in line with the U.S. Supreme Court and a majority of Americans in their support of LGBTQ rights.
As one of the final holdouts, the Methodist Church carried special weight because of its large membership -- 13 million worldwide. At least four U.S. presidents have been Methodist, most recently George W. Bush.
But like most mainstream churches, it has also been losing members in the United States. Helping compensate for that decline is a growing following in Africa and Asia.
Therein lie the roots of the theological conflict. While many U.S. congregations have become more liberal, many abroad have held steadfast to the belief that Christianity does not condone same-sex marriage and relationships.
The plan to split the church would commit $25 million to the new denomination and allow congregations that depart to keep their real estate. Thousands of churches around the world would be expected to take the deal.
The departures are likely to include some U.S. congregations, primarily in the conservative South. The deal would also set aside a total of $2 million to fund other splinter groups that emerge.