Methodist Church of Great Britain
|Methodist Church of Great Britain|
Channel Islands · Isle of Man · Gibraltar · Malta
Methodist Church House,|
25 Marylebone Road,
London NW1 5JR
|Origin||1932 (Methodist Union)1|
|Members||202,000 (2014), 575,000 total adherents|
|Aid organization||All We Can|
|1. The Methodist movement originated in the 18th century|
The Methodist Church of Great Britain is a Wesleyan Methodist church in Britain and the mother church to Methodists worldwide. It participates in the World Council of Churches, the World Methodist Council and other ecumenical associations. In July 2014 the denomination had approximately 202,000 members in 4,650 congregations and 575,000 adherents in total.
Methodism began through the work of John Wesley (1703–1791), who led an evangelical revival in 18th century Britain. An Anglican cleric, Wesley adopted unconventional and controversial practices, such as open-air preaching, to reach factory labourers and newly urbanised masses uprooted from their traditional village culture at the start of the Industrial Revolution. His preaching centred upon the universality of God's grace for all, the effect of faith on character and the possibility of perfection in love during this life. He organised the new converts locally and in a "Connexion" across Britain.
Following Wesley's death, the Methodist movement became a separate church, with its own ordained ministers; it is called a Nonconformist church because it does not conform to the rules of the established Church of England. In the 19th century, the Wesleyan Methodist Church experienced many secessions, with the largest of the offshoots being the Primitive Methodists. The main streams of Methodism were reunited in 1932, forming the Methodist Church as it is today.
Methodist circuits, containing several local churches, are gathered into thirty-one districts. The supreme governing body of the church is the annual Methodist Conference; it is headed by the president of conference, a presbyteral minister, supported by a vice-president who can be a local preacher or deacon.
The movement which would become the Methodist Church began in the mid-18th century within the Church of England. A small group of students, including John Wesley, Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, met at Oxford University. They focused on methodical study of the Bible and living a holy life. Other students mocked them, saying they were the "Holy Club" and "the Methodists", being methodical and exceptionally detailed in their Bible study, opinions and disciplined lifestyle. Eventually, the so-called Methodists started individual societies or classes for members of the Church of England who wanted to live a more religious life.
The first Methodist movement outside the Church of England was associated with Howell Harris in Wales. This was to become the Calvinistic Methodist Church (today known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales). Another branch of the Methodist revival was under the ministry of George Whitefield, resulting in the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion.
The largest branch of Methodism in England was organised by John Wesley. It is a tribute to his charisma and powers of oratory that "Methodism" is commonly assumed to be Wesleyan Methodism unless otherwise stated. Theologically, Wesley held to the Arminian view that salvation, by God's grace, was possible for all human beings, in contrast to the Calvinistic ideas of election and predestination that were accepted by the Nonconformists of 18th century England.
Methodist preachers were famous for their enthusiastic sermons and often accused of fanaticism. In those days, many members of England's established church feared that new doctrines promulgated by the Methodists, such as the necessity of a new birth for salvation, of justification by faith and of the constant and sustained action of the Holy Spirit upon the believer's soul, would produce ill effects upon weak minds. Theophilus Evans, an early critic of the movement, even wrote that it was "the natural Tendency of their Behaviour, in Voice and Gesture and horrid Expressions, to make People mad." In one of his prints, William Hogarth likewise attacked Methodists as "enthusiasts" full of "Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism." Other attacks against the Methodists were physically violent—Wesley was nearly murdered by a mob at Wednesbury in 1743. The Methodists responded vigorously to their critics and thrived despite the attacks against them.
As Wesley and his colleagues preached around the country they formed local societies, that were given national organisation through Wesley's leadership and conferences of preachers. Wesley insisted that Methodists regularly attend their local parish church as well as Methodist meetings. In 1784 Wesley made provision for the governance of Methodism after his death through the 'Yearly Conference of the People called Methodists'. He nominated 100 people and declared them to be its members and laid down the method by which their successors were to be appointed. The annual conference has remained the governing body of Methodism ever since, with various modifications implemented to increase the number of preachers present, to include lay members (1878) and later women (1911).
Separation from the Church of England
As his societies multiplied, and elements of an ecclesiastical system were successively adopted, the breach between Wesley and the Church of England (Anglicanism) gradually widened. In 1784, Wesley responded to the shortage of priests in the American colonies due to the American Revolutionary War by ordaining preachers for America with power to administer the sacraments. This was a major reason for Methodism's final split from the Church of England after Wesley's death. This split created a separate, eventually worldwide, series of church denominations.
The new Wesleyan Methodist Church was entrenched by the decision of the annual conference of 1795 to permit the celebration of Holy Communion in any chapel where both a majority of its trustees and a majority of the stewards and leaders allowed it. This permission was extended to the administration of baptism, burial and timing of chapel services, bringing Methodist chapels into competition with the local parish church. Consequently, known Methodists were often excluded from the full life of the Church of England accelerating the trend for Methodism to become entirely separate from the established church.
1790 to 1910
Early Methodism was particularly prominent in Devon and Cornwall, which were key centers of activity by the Bible Christian faction of Methodists. The Bible Christians produced many preachers, and sent many missionaries to Australia.
Methodism grew rapidly in the old mill towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, where the preachers stressed that the working classes were equal to the upper classes in the eyes of God. In Wales, three elements separately welcomed Methodism: Welsh-speaking, English-speaking, and Calvinistic.
The Methodists were methodical in collecting statistics on membership. Their growth was rapid, from 58,000 in 1790 to 302,000 in 1830 and 518,000 in 1850. Those were the official members, but the national census of 1851 counted people with an informal connection to Methodism, and the total was 1,463,000. Growth was steady in both rural and urban areas, despite disruption caused by numerous schisms; these resulted in separate denominations (or "Connexions") such as the Wesleyan Church, the first and largest, followed by the Primitive Methodist Church, the Bible Christian Church, and the Methodist New Connexion. (They were reunited in the Methodist Union of 1932.) Some of the growth can be attributed to the failure of the established Church of England to provide church facilities. A series of reforms in the established church help correct that failure, so there were fewer opportunities for the nonconformists in general and the Methodists in particular to keep growing. Membership reached 602,000 in 1870 and peaked at 841,000 in 1910.
Early Methodism did not appeal to England's landed gentry; they favoured the developing evangelical movement inside the Church of England. However, Methodism became popular among ambitious middle class families. For example, the Osborn family of Sheffield, whose steel company emerged in the mid-19th century in Sheffield's period of rapid industrialisation. Historian Clyde Binfield says their fervent Methodist faith strengthened their commitment to economic independence, spiritual certainty and civic responsibility.
Methodism was especially popular among skilled workers and much less prevalent among labourers. Historians such as Élie Halévy, Eric J. Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, have explored the role of Methodism in the early decades of the making of the British working class (1760–1820). On the one hand it provided a model of how to efficiently organise large numbers of people and sustain their connection over a long period of time, and on the other it diverted and discouraged political radicalism. In explaining why Britain did not undergo a social revolution in the period 1790-1832, a time that appeared ripe for violent social upheaval, Halévy argued that Methodism forestalled revolution among the working class by redirecting its energies toward spiritual affairs rather than workplace concerns. Thompson said that overall it had a politically regressive effect.
John Wesley was the longtime President of the Methodist Conference, but after his death it was agreed that in future, so much authority would not be placed in the hands of one man. Instead, the president would be elected for one year, to sit in Wesley's chair. Successive Methodist schisms resulted in multiple presidents, before a united conference assembled in 1932.
Wesley wrote, edited or abridged some 400 publications. As well as theology he wrote about music, marriage, medicine, abolitionism and politics. Wesley himself and the senior leadership were political conservatives. Although many union leaders were attracted to Methodism—the Tolpuddle Martyrs for example—the church itself did not actively support trade unions. Historians Patrick O'Brien and Roland Quinault argue:
- John Wesley's own Tory sympathies and autocratic instincts had been strong and genuine, and as far as possible he had instilled into his followers deference toward established social and religious authorities. He emphasised political quietism. His mission he saw as strictly spiritual, and his own inherently conservative political instincts and social values reinforced a pragmatic concern to give as little offense as possible to a suspicious wider society. These same motives influenced the ministerial oligarchy...."Methodism" said Jabez Bunting...hates democracy as it hates sin."
Jabez Bunting (1779 – 1858) was the most prominent leader of the Wesleyan Methodist movement after Wesley's death. He preached successful revivals until 1802, when he saw revivals leading to dissension and division. He then became dedicated to church order and discipline, and vehemently opposed revivalism. He was a popular preacher in numerous cities. He was four times chosen to be president of the conference and held numerous senior positions as administrator and watched budgets very closely. Bunting and his allies centralised power by making the conference the final arbiter of Methodism, and giving it the power to reassign preachers and select superintendents. He was zealous in the cause of foreign missions. In English politics he was conservative. He had little tolerance for liberal elements or for Sunday schools and temperance crusades, which led to expulsion of his opponents, whereupon a third of the members broke away in 1849. Numerous alliances with other groups failed and weakened his control.
William Bramwell was a preacher who engendered controversy due to his intense revivalist preaching style, which spurred awakenings throughout the north of England—including the 1793-97 Yorkshire Revival—and his association with Alexander Kilham (1762-1798). Kilham was a revivalist who led the New Connexion secession from mainstream Wesleyan ministry.
Hugh Price Hughes (1847 – 1902) was the first superintendent of the West London Methodist Mission, a key Methodist organisation. Recognised as one of the greatest orators of his era, he also founded and edited an influential newspaper, the Methodist Times in 1885. Hughes played a key role in leading Methodists into the Liberal Party coalition, away from the Conservative leanings of previous Methodist leaders.
John Scott Lidgett (1854 – 1953) achieved prominence both as a theologian and reformer by stressing the importance of the church's engagement with the whole of society and human culture. He promoted the Social Gospel and founded the Bermondsey Settlement to reach the poor of London, as well as the "Wesley Guild", a social organisation aimed at young people which reached 150,000 members by 1900.
Early Methodism experienced a radical and spiritual phase that allowed women authority in church leadership. The role of the woman preacher emerged from the sense that the home should be a place of community care and should foster personal growth. Women gained self-esteem at this time when members were encouraged to testify about the nature of their faith. Methodist women formed a community that cared for the vulnerable, extending the role of mothering beyond physical care. However the centrality of women's role sharply diminished after 1790 as the church became more structured and more male dominated.
In the 18th century Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707–91), played a major role in financing and guiding early Methodism. Selina was the first female principal of a men's college in England (Trevecca College, for the education of Methodist ministers). She financed the building of 64 chapels in England and Wales, wrote often to George Whitefield and John Wesley and funded mission work in colonial America. She is best remembered for her adversarial relationships with other Methodists who objected to a woman having power.
Methodists placed a high priority on close guidance of their youth, as seen in the activities of Sunday schools and the Band of Hope (a temperance organisation in which children took a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol).
Wesley himself opened schools at The Foundery in London, and Kingswood School. A Wesleyan report in 1832 said that for the church to prosper the system of Sunday schools should be augmented by day-schools with educated teachers. It was proposed in 1843 that 700 new day-schools be established within seven years. Though a steady increase was achieved, that ambitious target could not be reached, in part limited by the number of suitably qualified teachers. Most teachers came from one institution in Glasgow. The Wesleyan Education Report for 1844 called for a permanent Wesleyan teacher-training college. The result was the foundation of Westminster Training College at Horseferry Road, Westminster in 1851.
19th century England lacked a public school system; the major supplier was the Church of England. The Wesleyan Education Committee, which existed from 1838 to 1902, has documented the Methodist Church's involvement in the education of children. At first most effort was placed in creating Sunday schools. In 1832 there were 3,339 Sunday schools with 59,277 teachers and 341,442 pupils. In 1836 the conference gave its blessing to the creation of "Weekday schools". In 1902 the Methodists operated 738 schools, so their children would not have to learn from Anglican teachers. These rapidly declined throughout the 20th century, with only 28 still operating in 1996.
Through vigorous missionary work, Methodism spread throughout the British Empire. It was especially successful in the new United States, thanks to the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. English emigrants brought Methodism to Canada and Australia. British and American missionaries reached out to India and some other imperial colonies. For example, missionaries of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists served in Assam and Bengal from 1840 to 1866. In general the conversion efforts were only modestly successful, but reports back to Britain did have an influence in shaping how Methodists understood the wider world.
Historians group Methodists together with other Protestant groups as "Nonconformists" or Dissenters, standing in opposition to the established Church of England. In the 19th century the Dissenters who went to chapel comprised half the people who actually attended services on Sunday. The "Nonconformist conscience" was their moral sensibility which they tried to implement in British politics. The two categories of Dissenters, or Nonconformists, were in addition to the evangelicals or "Low Church" element in the Church of England. "Old Dissenters", dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, included Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, Unitarians and Presbyterians outside Scotland. "New Dissenters" emerged in the 18th century and were mainly Methodists, especially the Wesleyan Methodists.
The "Nonconformist conscience" of the "Old" group emphasized religious freedom and equality, pursuit of justice, and opposition to discrimination, compulsion and coercion. The "New Dissenters" (and also the Anglican evangelicals) stressed personal morality issues, including sexuality, temperance, family values and Sabbath-keeping. Both factions were politically active, but until mid-19th century the Old group supported mostly Whigs and Liberals in politics, while the New generally supported Conservatives. However the Methodists changed and in the 1880s moved into the Liberal Party, drawn in large part by Gladstone's intense moralism. The result was a merging of the Old and New, strengthening their great weight as a political pressure group. They joined together on new issues especially supporting temperance and opposing the Education Act 1902, with the former of special interest to Methodists. By 1914 the Conscience was weakening and by the 1920s it was virtually dead politically.
In the early days of Methodism chapels were sometimes built octagonal, largely to avoid conflict with the established Church of England. The first was in Norwich (1757); it was followed by Rotherham (1761), Whitby (1762), Yarm (1763), Heptonstall (1764) and nine others. John Wesley personally approved the design of the octogonal chapels, stating, "It is better for the voice and on many accounts more commodious than any other." He is also said to have added—"there are no corners for the devil to hide in".
Methodist Heritage records the Yarm chapel as the oldest in England in continual use. Its design and construction were overseen by Wesley, who preached at the chapel frequently and declared it as his "favourite".
Nevertheless, the Heptonstall chapel has also contested for the title of oldest octagon chapel in continual use. The building featured in the BBC television series Churches: How to Read Them. Presenter Richard Taylor named it as one of his ten favourite churches, saying: "If buildings have an aura, this one radiated friendship."
The Wesleyan Methodists' rejection of revivals and camp meetings led to the founding in 1820 of the Primitive Methodist Connexion in England and Scotland, which emphasised those practices. It was a democratic, lay-oriented movement. Its social base was among the poorer members of society; they appreciated both its content (damnation, salvation, sinners and saints) and style (direct, spontaneous, and passionate). It offered an alternative to the more middle class Wesleyan Methodists and the upper class controlled Anglican established church, and in turn sometimes led adherents to Pentecostalism. The Primitive Methodists were poorly funded and had trouble building chapels or schools, and supporting ministers. Growth was strong in the middle 19th century. Membership declined after 1900 because of growing secularism in society, competition from other Nonconformist denominations and from William Booth's Salvation Army, a resurgence of Anglicanism among the working classes, and competition among different Methodist branches.
The leading theologian of the Primitive Methodists was Arthur Peake (1865–1929), professor of biblical criticism at the University of Manchester, 1904-29. He was active in numerous leadership roles and promoted Methodist Union that came about in 1932 after his death. He popularised modern biblical scholarship, including the new higher criticism. He approached the Bible not as the infallible word of God, but as the record of revelation written by fallible humans.
1910 to present
Membership of the various Methodist branches peaked at 841,000 in 1910, then fell steadily to 425,000 in 1990 and only 202,000 in 2014. The second half of the 19th century saw many of the small schisms reunited to become the United Methodist Free Churches and a further union in 1907 with the Methodist New Connexion and Bible Christian Church brought the United Methodist Church into being. In 1908 the major three branches were the Wesleyan Methodists, the Primitive Methodists and the United Methodists. After the late 19th century evangelical approaches to the unchurched were less effective and less used. Methodists paid more attention to their current membership, and less to outreach, while middle-class family size shrank steadily. There were fewer famous preachers or outstanding leaders. The theological change that emphasised the conversion experience as being a one-time lifetime event rather than as a step on the road to perfection lessened the importance of the class meeting and made revivals less meaningful. The growth mechanisms that had worked so well in the expansion phase in the early 19th century were largely discarded, including revivals and the personal appeal to decide for Christ class meetings, as well as the love feast, the Sunday night prayer-meeting, and the open-air meeting. The failure to grow was signaled by the flagging experience of the Sunday schools, whose enrollments fell steadily.
With the Methodist Union of 1932 the three main Methodist connexions in Britain—the Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists and United Methodist Church—came together to form the present Methodist Church. Some offshoots of Methodism, such as the Salvation Army and Church of the Nazarene, remain totally separate organisations.
Attempts to reverse the decline
Reginald Ward states that because the union of 1932 was unevenly implemented until the 1950s, it distracted attention away from the urgent need to revive the fast-shrinking movement. The hoped-for financial gains proved to be illusory and Methodist leaders spent the early post-war era vainly trying to achieve union with the Church of England. Multiple approaches were used to turn around the membership decline and flagging zeal in the post-war era, but none worked well. For example, Methodist group tours were organized, but they ended when it was clear they made little impact.
Donald Soper (1903 – 1998) was perhaps the most widely recognised Methodist leader, promoted pacifism and nuclear disarmament in cooperation with the Labour Party. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament movement attracted millions of activists but had little or no impact on Methodism. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a moralistic Methodist; Soper denounced her policies as unchristian. However, in "the battle for Britain's soul" she was reelected over and over. Historian Martin Wellings says of Soper:
- His combination of modernist theology, high sacramentalism, and Socialist politics, expressed with insouciant wit and unapologetic élan, thrilled audiences, delighted admirers, and reduced opponents to apoplectic fury.
In 1967, Soper, then the only Methodist minister in the House of Lords, lamented that:
- To-day we are living in what is the first genuinely pagan age—that is to say, there are so many people, particularly children, who never remember having heard hymns at their mother's knee, as I have, whose first tunes are from Radio One, and not from any hymn book; whose first acquaintance with their friends and relations and other people is not in the Sunday School or in the Church at all, as mine was.
Scholars have suggested multiple possible reasons for the decline, but have not agreed on their relative importance. Wellings lays out the "classical model" of secularization, while noting that it has been challenged by some scholars.
- The familiar starting-point, a classical model of secularization, argues that religious faith becomes less plausible and religious practice more difficult in advanced industrial and urbanized societies. The breakdown or disruption of traditional communities and norms of behavior; the spread of a scientific world-view diminishing the scope of the supernatural and the role of God; increasing material affluence promoting self-reliance and this-worldly optimism; and greater awareness and toleration of different creeds and ideas, encouraging religious pluralism and eviscerating commitment to a particular faith, all form components of the case for secularization. Applied to the British churches in general by Steve Bruce and to Methodism in particular by Robert Currie, this model traces decline back to the Victorian era and charts in the twentieth century a steady ebbing of the sea of faith.
Doctrine and practice
The Methodist Church includes a variety of approaches to public worship. Like other historic Christian churches, the Methodist Church has official liturgies for services of Holy Communion, Baptism, Ordination, weddings and funerals. These and other services are contained in The Methodist Worship Book, which was published in 1999. Ministers, preachers and other worship leaders are not required to use the book, but it is a guideline for the structure of church services and contains prayers and responses.
A distinctive liturgical feature of Methodism is the use of Covenant services. Methodist churches annually follow the call of John Wesley for a renewal of their covenant with God. It is common for each congregation to normally hold an annual Covenant Service on the first convenient Sunday of the year, and the Wesley Covenant Prayer is still used.
A summary of Methodist doctrine is contained in the Catechism for the Use of the People Called Methodists. Some core beliefs affirmed by the Methodist Church are as follows:
- The belief that God is all-knowing, possesses infinite love and goodness, is all-powerful, and the creator of all things.
- God has always existed and will always continue to exist.
- God is three persons in one: Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- God is the master of all creation and humans are meant to live in a holy covenant with him. Humans have broken this covenant by their sins, and can only be forgiven if they truly have faith in the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ.
- Jesus was God on Earth, in the form of a man who was crucified for the sins of all people, and who was physically resurrected to bring them the hope of eternal life.
- The grace of God is seen by people through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives and in their world. (Personal holiness)
- Close adherence to the teachings of scripture is essential to the faith because scripture is the Word of God.
- Methodists are part of a universal church and must work with all Christians to spread the love of God.
- Baptism and the Lord's Supper (Holy Communion) are the two sacraments instituted by Jesus:
- Baptism is a sacrament involving the submersion or, more commonly in the Methodist Church, sprinkling of water which cleanses the stain of original sin. It also symbolises being brought into the community of faith; the Church practices infant baptism as well as baptism of adult converts.
- The Lord's Super is a sacrament in which participants eat bread and drink wine (Methodists use non-alcoholic juice) in memory of the Last Supper. The Catechism states, "Jesus Christ is present with his worshipping people [...] As they eat the bread and drink the wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit they receive him by faith and with thanksgiving."
- People can only be saved through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any other acts of redemption such as good deeds.
Wesleyan theology stands at a unique cross-roads between evangelical and sacramental, between liturgical and charismatic, and between Anglo-Catholic and Reformed theology and practice. It has been characterised as Arminian theology with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit to bring holiness into the life of the participating believer. The Methodist Church teaches the Arminian concepts of free will, conditional election and sanctifying grace. John Wesley was perhaps the clearest English proponent of Arminianism. The church teaches that salvation is entirely a work of God alone with no work by which it can be earned (monergism), and that one cannot either turn to God nor believe unless God has first drawn a person and implanted the desire in their heart (the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace).
It is a traditional position of the Methodist Church (as of many others) that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason by which to understand God's action and will, especially from reading the Bible. Methodists have also emphasised the importance of Scriptural holiness, which entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbour, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world. John Wesley made much of the process of sanctification, occasionally even seeming to claim that individuals could achieve "Christian Perfection" in this human life.
- . "The Bible is the Word of God and is therefore inerrant (free of all error and entirely trustworthy in everything which it records) and has complete authority in all matters of theology and behavior....
- . The Bible's teaching about God, salvation and Christian living is entirely trustworthy. It cannot be expected, however, to provide entirely accurate, scientific or historical information....
- . The Bible is the essential foundation on which Christian faith and life are built. However, its teachings were formed in particular historical and cultural contexts, and must therefore be read in that light....
- . The Bible's teaching, while foundational and authoritative for Christians, needs to be interpreted by the church.... Church tradition is therefore high importance as a practical source of authority.
- . The Bible is one of the main ways in which God speaks to the believer... Much stress is placed on spiritual experience itself, which conveys its own compelling authority.
- . The Bible witnesses to God's revelation of himself through history and supremely through Jesus Christ. However, the Bible is not itself that revelation, but only the witness to it.... Reason, tradition and experience are as important as the biblical witnesses.
- . The Bible comprises a diverse and often contradictory collection of documents which represent the experiences of various people in various times and places. The Christian's task is to follow, in some way, the example of Christ. And to the extent that the Bible records, evidence of his character and teaching it offers a useful resource.
The Methodist Church understands itself to be part of the Holy Catholic Church and it recognises the historic ecumenical creeds: the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed, which are used during services of Holy Communion. It is a Protestant and evangelical church. Although Methodist practices and interpretation of beliefs have evolved over time, these practices and beliefs can be traced to the writings, hymns and sermons of the church's founders, especially John Wesley and Charles Wesley. The Methodist Church does not possess a strict set of doctrines comparable to that of the Westminster Confession, but it does specify broad doctrinal standards.
The formal doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church of Great Britain are as follows:
The Methodist Church claims and cherishes its place in the Holy Catholic Church which is the Body of Christ. It rejoices in the inheritance of the apostolic faith and loyally accepts the fundamental principles of the historic creeds and of the Protestant Reformation. It ever remembers that in the providence of God Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness through the land by the proclamation of the evangelical faith and declares its unfaltering resolve to be true to its divinely appointed mission. The doctrines of the evangelical faith which Methodism has held from the beginning and still holds are based upon the divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The Methodist Church acknowledges this revelation as the supreme rule of faith and practice. These evangelical doctrines to which the preachers of the Methodist Church are pledged are contained in Wesley's Notes on the New Testament and the first four volumes of his sermons.
Positions on social and moral issues
The Methodist Church takes a moderate anti-abortion (pro-life) position, stating that the termination of any form of human life cannot be regarded superficially. It believes that a foetus should progressively be accorded rights as it develops through its stages of gestation, culminating with full respect as an individual at birth. It does maintain that abortion is a permissible choice in a small number of very specific cases, namely where the mother's life is at risk, where there is risk of "grave injury" to the physical or mental health of the mother, in cases of rape or incest, and where the right of the unborn child to be healthy and wanted may not be met. The Methodist Church believes its members should work toward the elimination of the need for abortion by advocating for social support for mothers. It states that "abortion must not be regarded as an alternative to contraception", and disagrees with complete legalisation, recommending that abortion "should remain subject to a legal framework, to responsible counselling and to medical judgement." The church supports the use of "responsible contraception" and family planning as ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
The Methodist Church strongly opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia: "The final stage of an illness is not one which need represent the ultimate defeat for the doctor or nurse, but a supreme opportunity to help the patient at many levels, including those relating to emotional and spiritual well-being ... Dedicated workers in this field of care, including specialised hospices, demonstrate that it is possible to deal with all the symptoms which cause problems to the patient ... Euthanasia, assisted dying – both are artificial precipitation of death. Many Christians believe this idea is wrong. An approach to death as outlined above makes euthanasia inappropriate and irrelevant."
The Methodist Church supported the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Great Britain and since then has totally opposed its reintroduction.
Sexuality and marriage
Within the Methodist Church, members have a broad range of views about human sexuality, relationships and the nature and purpose of marriage. The church condemns "all practices of sexuality, which are promiscuous, exploitative or demeaning in any way". In his 1743 tract, Thoughts on marriage and a single life, John Wesley taught that the ability to live a single life is given by God to all believers, although few people are able to accept this gift.
In 1993 the Methodist Conference, the governing body of the Methodist Church, met in Derby and passed six resolutions covering issues related with human sexuality (known as the "Derby Resolutions" or "1993 Resolutions"). Among these, the conference reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching of "chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it". The Methodist Church defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The Derby Resolutions also agreed that the church "recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men" and allows the ordination of openly gay ministers.
The Methodist Church has a mixed position on the blessing of same-sex couples. In 2005 the Methodist Conference meeting in Torquay decided to allow its ministers to bless same-sex relationships, subject to local approval. The 2005 conference affirmed that the church should be "welcoming and inclusive" and not turn people away because of their sexual orientation. However, in 2006 the Methodist Conference reversed this decision and decided not to allow formal blessings, although ministers were allowed to offer informal private prayers. The 2013 conference set up a working party to oversee a process of "deep reflection and discernment" before reporting back to the conference in 2016 with recommendations about whether the definition of marriage should be revised. Subsequently, in 2016 the church voted to "revisit" its position on same-sex marriage, with a mandate from members "expressing a desire to endorse same-sex relationships". Although there are no formal services, "prayers of thanksgiving or celebration may be said, and there may be informal services of thanksgiving or celebration...'Blessings', would be a formal liturgy, and are not permitted." The church has no rules prohibiting its members (including ministers) from entering into or remaining within a civil partnership or civil same-sex marriage.
Outcome is the representative group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Methodists. It aims to strengthen the Methodist Church's position as an LGBT-affirming denomination. The group wants the church to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies.
In 1744, the directions the Wesleys gave to the Methodist societies required them "to taste no spirituous [i.e., distilled] liquor ... unless prescribed by a physician." Methodists later took a leading role in the temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Methodism remains associated with teetotalism in the public mind. Methodists saw alcoholic beverages, and alcoholism, as the root of many social ills and tried to persuade people to abstain from these. Temperance appealed strongly to the Methodist doctrines of sanctification and perfection. At one time, ministers had to take a pledge not to drink and encouraged their congregations to do the same. To this day, alcohol remains banned in Methodist premises. However, the choice to consume alcohol outside of church is now a personal decision for any member.
The Methodist Church uses unfermented (non-alcoholic) grape juice in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
From the start Methodism was sympathetic towards poor people. In 1753, John Wesley bemoaned, "So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’." In a Joint Public Issues Team report issued with the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church, the Methodist Church regret this misconception is also prevalent today.
Daleep Mukarji, Methodist Vice-President in 2013 and former Director of the charity Christian Aid, said economic inequality was more prevalent in the 21st Century UK than at any time since World War II. Twenty-five per cent of UK residents experience relative poverty, disproportionately many are children.
Working with others, people of faith or no faith, we need to work for justice, inclusion and development that benefits the poor and marginalised here in the UK and across the world. This requires that we be prepared for the education, organisation and equipping of our members so that we build the necessary energy and commitment to see changes in our society. (...) We must hold our leaders, the structures and systems accountable so that we see that the weak and vulnerable are given a better deal. (...) Many Methodists in our local churches and circuits have outstanding programmes that serve people in need. At this time when poverty, deprivation and neglect seem to have got worse we should do more. (...) Our Methodist church is known for our service, our commitment to social justice and our willingness to act to transform society.
Presbyters and deacons
In 2005 there were around 3,600 ordained ministers in the Methodist Church. The church recognises two orders of ordained ministry—that of presbyter (literally: "elder") and deacon. Church documents refer to both as "Minister", though popular usage often limits this title to presbyters. Presbyters are styled "The Reverend", while "Deacon" is used as a title by members of the diaconate. Deacons also belong to a community of deacons in the Methodist diaconal order. The Deed of Union, the founding document of the church, describes the roles of presbyters and deacons and the purpose of their ministries:
Christ's ministers in the church are stewards in the household of God and shepherds of his flock. Some are called and ordained to this occupation as presbyters or deacons. Presbyters have a principal and directing part in these great duties but they hold no priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to all the Lord's people and they have no exclusive title to the preaching of the gospel or the care of souls. These ministries are shared with them by others to whom also the Spirit divides his gifts severally as he wills.
The two orders are equal in status, with presbyters and deacons each serving a distinct role in the ministry of the Methodist Church. Deacons are called to a ministry of service and witness: specifically to "assist God's people in worship and prayer" and "to visit and support the sick and the suffering". Presbyters are called to a ministry of word and sacrament: "to preach by word and deed the Gospel of God's grace" and "to baptise, to confirm, and to preside at the celebration of the sacrament of Christ's body and blood." Presbyters are itinerant preachers, residing in a circuit for usually five years before transferring to another.
Methodist presbyters are usually given pastoral charge of several local churches in a circuit. Ordinary presbyters are in turn overseen by a superintendent, who is the most senior minister in a circuit. Unlike many other Methodist churches, the British church does not have bishops. A report, 'What Sort of Bishops?' to the conference of 2005, was accepted for study and report. This report considered if this should now be changed, and if so, what forms of episcopacy might be acceptable. Consultation at grassroots level during 2006 and 2007 revealed overwhelming opposition from those who responded. As a consequence, the 2007 conference decided not to move towards having bishops at present.
Without bishops, the Methodist Church does not subscribe to the idea of an historical episcopate. However, it does affirm apostolic succession. In 1937 the Methodist Conference located the "true continuity" with the church of past ages in "the continuity of Christian experience, the fellowship in the gift of the one Spirit; in the continuity in the allegiance to one Lord, the continued proclamation of the message; the continued acceptance of the mission;..." [through a long chain which goes back to the] "the first disciples in the company of the Lord Himself ... This is our doctrine of apostolic succession" [which neither depends on, nor is secured by,] "an official succession of ministers, whether bishops or presbyters, from apostolic times, but rather by fidelity to apostolic truth".
Ordination of women
The Wesleyan Methodist Church established an order of deaconesses in 1890. The Methodist Church has allowed ordination of women as presbyters since 2 July 1974, at the Methodist Conference in Bristol. The Methodist Church, along with some other Protestant churches, holds that when the historical contexts involved are understood, a coherent Biblical argument can be made in favour of women's ordination.
A notable feature of British Methodism is its extensive use of "local preachers" ('local' because they stay in the same circuit, as opposed to 'itinerant' preachers who move to different circuits, in the case of presbyters.) They are lay people or deacons who have been trained and accredited to preach and lead worship services in place of a presbyter. However, local preachers cannot ordinarily officiate at a Communion service. Local preachers are thus similar to lay readers in the Church of England. It is estimated that local preachers conduct seven out of every ten Methodist services, either in their own circuit or in others where they are invited as "visiting preachers". All candidates for ordination as a presbyter in the Methodist Church are required to be admitted as local preachers before they can be accepted as candidates or begin their training.
Local preachers have played an important role in English and Welsh social history, especially among the working class and Labour movement. Recent prominent public figures who preached include George Thomas, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1976 to 1983, and Len Murray, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress from 1973 to 1983.
Methodists belong to local churches or local ecumenical partnerships (usually meeting in a building called a "chapel") but also feel part of a larger connected community, known as "The Connexion". This sense of being connected makes a difference to how the Methodist Church as a whole is structured. The church also supports several associate charities.
The Methodist Church is characterised by a strong central organisation and loose hierarchy.
The central governing body of the Connexion is the Methodist Conference, which meets in June every year. It represents both ministers and lay people (non-ministers) and decides church policy. The conference is a gathering of representatives from each district, along with some who have been elected by the conference and some ex officio members and representatives of the youth assembly. It is held annually in three sessions, for the presbyterate, the diaconate and a representative session including lay representatives.
Issues may be brought before the conference in the form of "memorials", which are formally examined and discussed. The conference may release statements on moral, social and doctrinal issues and it is understood to have authority to speak generally on the church's behalf
The conference is presided over by the president of conference, a minister (presbyter), supported by a vice-president who can be a local preacher or deacon. The president and vice-president serve a one-year term, travelling across the Connexion and preaching at local churches.
Circuits and districts
The Connexion is divided into 375 circuits governed by the (usually) twice-yearly circuit meeting and led and administrated principally by a superintendent minister. Ministers are appointed to these rather than to local churches. Most circuits have many fewer ministers than churches and the majority of services are led by local preachers, or by supernumerary ministers—retired ministers who are not officially counted in the number of ministers for the circuit in which they are listed. The superintendent and other ministers are assisted in the leadership and administration of the circuit by lay circuit stewards, who together form what is normally known as the "circuit leadership team".
The circuits are grouped in thirty-one districts covering Great Britain, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, each supervised by a district synod and a district chair, except the large London District which has three chairs.
Some large inner-city churches—known as "central halls"—are designated as circuits in themselves, Westminster Central Hall in central London being the best known. About a hundred central halls were built in Britain between 1886 and 1945, many in a Renaissance or Baroque style. In their heyday they presented low-cost concerts and shows to entertain the working classes on Saturdays, encouraging them to abstain from alcohol, as well as hosting church congregations on Sundays. However, many were bombed during the Second World War, and others declined as people moved out of the city centres; today fewer than 20 remain in use as churches. Others such as the landmark buildings Methodist Central Hall, Birmingham and Grand Central Hall, Liverpool have been sold and adapted as retail or nightclub venues.
The Methodist Church is closely associated with several charitable organisations; namely, Action for Children (formerly NCH and before that the National Children's Homes), All We Can (formerly the Methodist Relief & Development Fund) and Methodist Homes.
The church also helps to run a number of schools, including two leading public schools in East Anglia, Culford School and The Leys. It helps to promote an all round education with a strong Christian ethos.
Ecumenical and interfaith relations
The Methodist Church participates in various ecumenical forums and associations. The church is a member of the three national ecumenical bodies in Great Britain, namely Churches Together in England, Cytûn in Wales and Action of Churches Together in Scotland, plus Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. From the 1970s onward, the Methodist Church has been involved in over 900 "local ecumenical partnerships" (LEPs) with neighbouring denominations, usually with the Church of England, the Baptist Union or with the United Reformed Church.
It also participates in the Conference of European Churches and the World Council of Churches. The church has sent delegates to every Assembly of the World Council and has at various times been represented on its Central Committees and Faith and Order Commission.
In April 2016 the World Methodist Council opened an Ecumenical Office in Rome, Italy. Methodist leaders and Pope Francis met together to dedicate the new office. It exists to offer a resource in the city of Rome for the global Methodist family and to help facilitate Methodist relationships with the wider Christian Church, especially the Roman Catholic Church.
In the 1960s, the Methodist Church made ecumenical overtures to the Church of England, aimed at church unity. In February 1963, a report, Conversations between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, was published. This gave an outline of a scheme to unite the two churches. The scheme was not without opposition, for four Methodist representatives; Kingsley Barrett, Meadley, Snaith and Jessop, issued a dissentient report. Through much of the 1960s, controversy spread in the two churches. Central in the debate was the need for Methodist ministers to be ordained under the Anglican historical episcopate. Critics claimed that this would be re-ordination and proponents of the scheme struggled to find a form of words to disguise this fact.
Discussions failed when the proposals for union were rejected by the Church of England's General Synod in 1972 but were renewed in the mid-1990s, with a series of Informal Conversations held in 1995 and 1996. These meetings concluded with the publication of a common statement in December 2000 which highlighted common beliefs and potential areas of cooperation between the two denominations.
In 2002, the British Methodist Conference voted on the proposals in An Anglican-Methodist Covenant, sending it to its districts for discussion. On 1 November 2003, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, the president and other leaders of the Methodist Conference and the leaders of the Church of England signed the covenant at Methodist Central Hall in the city of Westminster. The covenant affirms the willingness of the two churches to work together at a diocesan/district level in matters of evangelism and joint worship.
Controversy over report on Zionism
Following the submission of a report entitled 'Justice for Palestine and Israel' in July 2010, the UK Methodist Conference was reported to have questioned whether "Zionism was compatible with Methodist beliefs". Christian Zionism was broadly characterised as believing that Israel "must be held above criticism whatever policy is enacted", and conference called for a boycott of selected goods from Israeli settlements. The UK's Chief Rabbi described the report as "unbalanced, factually and historically flawed" and charged that it offered "no genuine understanding of one of the most complex conflicts in the world today. Many in both communities will be deeply disturbed."
St. Andrew's Scots Church, Malta is a joint congregation (local ecumenical partnership) of the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Church of Scotland situated in Valletta. There are also Methodist Churches in the Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (each forming a district).
Methodism is a worldwide Protestant movement with around 80.5 million adherents (including members of united and uniting churches). Its largest denomination is the United Methodist Church which has congregations on four continents (though the majority are in the United States). Almost all Methodist denominations meet together quinquennially in a conference of the World Methodist Council, with its headquarters in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
The Methodist Recorder is an independent weekly newspaper that examines events and current affairs within the Methodist community in Britain and worldwide. It has been published continuously since 1861, absorbing its major rivals the Watchman in 1883, the United Methodist in 1932 and the Methodist Times in 1937.
On 13 February 1992 the Recorder published its 7,000th edition and the following year published its first April Fools' Day joke, claiming that there would be a "complete standardisation of Methodist worship" which would require local preachers to wear a "uniform" and be trained in clowning and juggling.
In 2012 the paper was priced £1.95 per edition. Although not available online, the Recorder maintains a basic website offering subscription details and a brief outline of the newspaper's contents. A full archive in both bound copies and microfilm is available from the Methodist Studies Unit of the former Westminster College, Oxford, now part of Oxford Brookes University. Public access is free of charge (by prior appointment) and a small charge is made for reproduction.
Work with young people
As of 2014, 32,000 children and young people visit a Methodist service every week, and some Methodist churches work with young people in their communities. Work with young people is overseen by the Children and Youth Team, originally called the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs (MAYC). Once a year, young people have a chance to meet and discuss church issues at 3Generate (formerly Methodist Youth Assembly - 2010) and are represented throughout the year by the Methodist Youth President, a paid young person, and other representatives, who are elected to represent the Methodist Children and Youth at events such as the British Youth Council, the World Methodist Council, as well as the annual Methodist Conference. At the 3Generate conference in November 2015, more than 600 young people and leaders gathered for a weekend of different activities and training, which is double the number on the 2014 event.
Although not part of the official structures of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, there are a number of fellowships and societies for Methodist interests. One of these is the Wesley Historical Society whose branches hold regular meetings and publish journals recording the history of Methodism. These are useful sources of information.
The Voice of Methodism Association (Charity registration 233722) was formed at Westminster Central Hall on Saturday 25 January 1964, to oppose the proposal to join together the Anglican Church with the Methodist Church (see above). Opposition at the time was described as ‘formidable’.
From around 1967 onwards, the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme began to run into problems. There was strong opposition from Anglo-Catholics, and the Voice of Methodism campaigned against it. Following initial alarm that the Scheme would begin in 1965, voting was delayed until 1969. There were many arguments over the ‘Service of Reconciliation’. In asserting the Historic Episcopate, the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, stated in the 1932 Methodist Deed of Union, was being denied. The debate became acrimonious, reaching a low point with the publication of the book 'Anglican-Methodist Unity: Some Considerations Historical and Liturgical' by Margaret Deanesly and Geoffrey G. Willis. The Voice of Methodism brought a Chancery Court case against the Methodist Connexion. It was claimed that the degree of opposition expressed in the Methodist District Synods and Circuit Meetings did not represent the true depth of feeling against the Scheme in the pews. Around a tenth of the Church left. At the votes taken in July 1969, the Methodist Conference accepted the Scheme, but insufficient support was given in the Anglican Convocations and, despite several attempts to revive it, the proposals lapsed.
The 'Voice of Methodism Association' was taken into administration by the Charity Commission in 1992. A renewed trust was formed by the Charity Commission in 2002. This renewed trust seeks to support unity between Christians without uniformity. It has continued to campaign against attempts to merge the Methodist Church with the Church of England on grounds that all current schemes for merger compromise Methodist doctrine. The charity also gives small scale grants to support Methodist churches and encourages Church members to preserve the distinctive Methodist identity.
Methodist Evangelicals Together
Methodist Evangelicals Together is the recently (2007) adopted name for Headway, an association of evangelically minded Methodists. Headway was formed about 20 years ago when the Methodist Revival Fellowship and Conservative Evangelicals in Methodism merged. It has over 2000 members, including some 400 ministers, and exercises increasing influence. The journal, METConnexion, has articles covering a wide range of topics.
- List of Methodist churches
- Saints in Methodism
- Temperance movement in the United Kingdom
- Religion in the United Kingdom
- History of Christianity in Britain
- The larger figure comprises the "community roll"—all people known to have 'active links' to the church, including members. Additionally, the 2009 British Social Attitudes Survey found that around 800,000 people, or 1.3 per cent of the population, identified as Methodist, but many do not have 'active links' with the church.
- METConnexion magazine Editorial
- "Presidency". The Methodist Church in Britain. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
- "Methodism in Numbers – Statistics at a Glance" (PDF). methodist.org.uk. The Methodist Conference. July 2015. Retrieved 23 December 2015.
- Jr, Charles Yrigoyen (25 September 2014). T&T Clark Companion to Methodism. A&C Black. p. 73. ISBN 9780567290779.
British Methodism therefore holds an inescapable chronological priority in the history of world Methodism and it has also often been accorded a courteous priority of esteem, being regard still as the 'mother church' by Methodists from many parts of the globe. The story of the origins and development of Methodism in what is now the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, therefore, is the story, first, of an eighteenth-century movement which gave birth to the whole Methodist enterprise and then of a nineteenth-century church whose influence reached out across the world through the missionary endeavors of the various British Connexions within and beyond the British Empire.
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- Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland
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