By Jessica Keitley
The Origins and History
'Methodists' was originally a nickname applied to a revival movement in 18th century Britain, based within the Church of England and led by, among others, the brothers John and Charles Wesley.
John Wesley was born in Epworth, 23 miles (37 km) northwest of Lincoln, the son of Samuel Wesley, a graduate of Oxford, and a minister of the Church of England. In 1689 Samuel married Susanna Annesley, twenty-fifth child of Dr. Samuel Annesley. Both Samuel and Susanna had been raised in Dissenting homes before becoming members of the Established Church early in adulthood. Susanna herself became a mother of nineteen children. In 1696 Samuel Wesley was appointed rector of Epworth, where John, the fifteenth child, was born.
At the age of six, John was rescued from the burning rectory. This escape made a deep impression on his mind; and he spoke of himself as a "brand plucked from the burning," and as a child of Providence.
The Wesley children's early education was given by their parents in the Epworth rectory. Each child, including the girls, were taught to read, beginning at the age of five. In 1713 John was admitted to the Charterhouse School, London, where he lived the studious, methodical, and (for a while) religious life in which he had been trained at home
John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist church.
studied at Oxford, and while there started their own "Holy Club". They
were given the nickname Methodists because they lived by method. The Holy Club was a group whose purpose was to
“provide a disciplined method of spiritual improvement”. Club members met
each evening for Bible reading and prayer. They also held regular private
devotions. Discussions among club members concerned justification
before sanctification and “the need for holiness in human living”. Club
members preached to and prayed with jail prisoners, hovel paupers and “the
underdogs of British society”. This was the first widely successful
evangelical movement in the United Kingdom. Wesley's Methodist Connexion
included societies throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland before
spreading to other parts of the English-speaking world and beyond
Methodism as derived from Wesley, was undivided during his lifetime, but following his death in 1791 there were several divisions, all of which maintained the name Methodist, but which are distinguished by other titles and of course other features and emphasis than the original.
The first division was in 1797 when under the leadership of Alexander Kilham, a Wesicyan Minister, the Methodist New Connexion was formed.
In the first half of the nineteenth century further breakaways led to the formation of other bodies; such were the Primitive Methodists in 1807 led by Hugh Bourne and William Clowes.
In 1815 a group known as The Bible Christians (the only group not to include the word Methodist in their title) was formed in the west country, but they were an off-shoot of the main body.
A small group to be known as Protestant Methodists was formed in Leeds in 1827 and a further group known as the Wesleyan Methodist Association was formed in 1836.
The final disruption came in 1849 when certain men were determined to reform Wesleyan Methodism and these became known as Wesleyan Reformers. Unsuccessful in their reforming zeal, they eventually joined forces with the Protestant Methodists and the Wesleyan Methodist Association to become known as the United Methodist Free Churches (1857). Not all the reformers joined this united church, but formed their own under the title Wesleyan Reform Union, which church continues to this day.
The year 1857 might well be described as the first attempt at union, and fifty years on, three of the divided groups came together - the United Methodist Free Churches, the Methodist New Connexion, and the Bible Christians to form the United Methodist Church (1907). In 1932 the final union was consumated by the coming together of the United Methodist Church, the Primitive Methodist Church, and the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Thus today we think of the Methodist Church, as one.
ORGANIZATION OF THE CHURCH
The United Methodist Church is organized into conferences. The highest level is called the General Conference and is the only organization which may speak officially for the church. The General Conference meets every four years. Legislative changes are recorded in The Book of Discipline which is revised after each General Conference. Non-legislative resolutions are recorded in The Book of Resolutions, which is published after each General Conference, and expire after eight years unless passed again by a subsequent session of General Conference. Bishops, Councils, Committees, Boards, Elders, etc., are not permitted to speak on behalf of the United Methodist Church as this authority is reserved for the General Conference in accordance with the Book of Discipline.
Beneath the General Conference are Jurisdictional and Central Conferences which also meet every four years. The church is divided into seven central conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central & Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and Philippines. The main purpose of the jurisdictions and central conferences is to elect and appoint bishops, the chief administrators of the church.
Annual conferences are further divided into Districts, each served by a District Superintendent. The district superintendents are also appointed annually from the ordained elders of the annual conference by the Bishop. District superintendents are not superior in ordination to other elders; upon completion of their service as superintendent they routinely return to serving local congregations. The annual conference cabinet is composed of the resident bishop and the district superintendents.For each of the 33 Districts in Britain, there is a Chairman of the District whose job is to lead the ministers and lay people in the work of preaching and worship, evangelism, pastoral care, teaching and administration.
Each District has a District Synod (a council). Its purpose is to decide policy for the District and to be the link between the Conference and Connexional offices of the Church on the one hand, and the Circuits and local churches on the other.
Some church members belong to the District Synod either because they have been elected or because they hold one of a number of offices within the District or in the Circuits.
The 33 Districts in Britain are:
The responsibilities of the Circuit are exercised through the Circuit Meeting. Its task is to combine spiritual leadership with administrative efficiency to help the Circuit fulfill its purpose.
Some church members belong to the Circuit Meeting either because they have been elected, or because they hold one of a number of offices within the Circuit or in local churches.
The purpose of the Circuit is to use effectively the resources of ministry, which include people, property and finance. It acts as the focal point for the fellowship of the local churches, looking after their pastoral care, training and evangelistic work
While the General Conference is the only organization that can officially speak for the United Methodist Church as a whole, there are several councils, boards, commissions, and agencies that the church operates on the denomination level. These organizations address specific topic areas of denomination-wide concern.
The clergy includes men and women who are ordained by Bishops as Elders and Deacons and are appointed to various ministries. Elders are part of what is called the itinerating ministry and are subject to the authority and appointment of their bishops. They generally serve as pastors at local congregations. Deacons make up a serving ministry and may serve as musicians, educators, business administrators, and a number of other ministries. Elders and deacons are required to obtain master's degrees before ordination.
There is also another clerical order called local pastors. Elders may serve in and perform sacraments in any church while local pastors may only serve in and perform sacraments in the specific church that they were appointed to by their bishop. Local pastors are not required to have advanced degrees but are required to take yearly classes.
All clergy appointments are made annually. Until the Bishop has read the appointments at the session of the Annual Conference, no appointments are fixed. Only under special circumstances will an appointment be changed between sessions of Annual Conference. While an appointment is made one year at a time, it is most common for an appointment to be continued for multiple years. One recent survey concluded that small church appointments currently average three to four years, while large church appointments average seven to nine years
CENTRAL BELIEFS - WORSHIP
United Methodist beliefs are similar to many mainline Protestant denominations. Although United Methodist beliefs have evolved over time, these beliefs can be traced to the writings of the church's founders, John Wesley and Charles Wesley. With the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968, theologian Albert C. Outler led the team which systematized denominational doctrine. Outler's work proved pivotal in the work of union, and he is largely considered the first United Methodist theologian.
The basic beliefs of the United Methodist Church include:
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has declared homosexuality to be "incompatible with Christian teaching." Following the 1972 incompatibility clause other restrictions have been added at subsequent General Conferences. Currently the Book of Discipline prohibits the ordination of "practicing, self-avowed homosexuals," forbids clergy from blessing or presiding over same-sex unions, forbids the use of UMC facilities for same-sex union ceremonies and prohibits the use of Church funds for "gay caucuses" or other groups that "promote the acceptance of homosexuality."
Despite this language, the Church is not of one mind on this issue. In the Book of Discipline preceding the incompatibility clause, it clearly states that "homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth." This phrase affirms "God's good gift" of sexuality to gay and lesbian persons. Some find that this stands in contradiction to the following statement regarding the incompatibility of the practice of homosexuality with Christian teaching while others see the issue focusing on practice and not orientation. The Book of Discipline affirms that all persons, both heterosexual and homosexual, are included in the ministry of the church and can receive the gift of God's grace. Furthermore, the Book of Discipline supports the civil rights of homosexual persons and rejects the abuse of homosexuals by families and churches.