A fight fueled by gay marriage and inflamed by a Georgia pastor is threatening to widen a schism in the United Methodist Church that may take center stage during a conference in Athens next week.

A group of about 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians – led by Rev. Chuck Savage (photo), who is president of the Georgia United Methodist Foundation – called for the church to split among progressives and traditionalists over irreconcilable differences, including gay marriage, according to United Methodist News.

“I don't think we will ever agree on the issues that deeply divide us,” said the Rev. Chuck Savage, president of the Georgia United Methodist Foundation, in a press release accompanying the statement. “However, it is my hope that we will agree on a plan of separation that will serve both traditionalists and progressives well. My opinion is that if we can reach agreement on such a plan both progressives and traditionalists will emerge stronger.”

That statement prompted Rev. Dalton Rushing, pastor of North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur, to craft a response calling for unity. That covenant has gained about 460 signees, including 191 clergy, among United Methodists in the North Georgia Conference, including many in metro Atlanta.

The covenant says that the status quo isn't ideal, but neither is a split among United Methodists.

Though there are some issues about which we profoundly disagree, we are united in our opposition to schism in the United Methodist Church. We do not believe, as some have argued, that splitting the church into separate, theologically like-minded denominations will solve the issues surrounding the modern United Methodist Church. We reject the notion that this sort of denominational split is the answer to the many difficult disagreements we have seen played out at the local church, annual conference, jurisdictional, and general church level.

At least one staff member from Saint Mark UMC, which has a large LGBT membership and is among Atlanta's gay-friendliest churches, supports the unity covenant. Rev. Jennifer Hansen, the church's missions and outreach minister, is among its signees.

The schism could come to a head during the annual conference of the North Georgia Conference, set for June 10-12 in Athens.

A split over gay marriage and LGBT issues has been sparking flare-ups among United Methodists for years with several pastors and bishops beginning to perform same-sex unions, which contradicts church doctrine. The church also bans noncelibate gay clergy, but offers domestic partner benefits to employees. United Methodist News offers a detailed timeline of recent developments.

In April, Good News, an unofficial United Methodist renewal group, said the “widespread disregard” of the church’s ban on same-sex unions and a lack of enforcement by bishops has made the denomination’s situation “untenable.”

In Atlanta, the debate over gay marriage leaves some pastors wringing their hands.

The Rev. B. Wiley Stephens, senior pastor of Dunwoody (Ga.) United Methodist Church, was among the first signers of the covenant who did not have a hand in drafting it. He is retiring this year after 50 years in ordained ministry. He also has been a delegate to four General Conferences, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.

His congregation has about 4,750 members. Like many churches, he says his congregation includes gay and straight members.

“It just breaks my heart to see the danger of the church breaking up,” he said.