The Methodist Church

Methodism is a group of historically related denominations of Protestant Christianity. The Methodist movement traces its origin to the evangelistic teaching of John Wesley. It originated in 18th century Britain, and through vigorous missionary activity, spread throughout the world. Originally it appealed especially to workers, agricultural workers, and slaves. Theologically Methodists are Arminian or some say mildly Calvinist. They hold that Christ accomplished salvation for everybody, and that everyone must actually have the will to be saved (as opposed to the Calvinist doctrine of monergism). Methodist worship has two strands: low church (Primitive Methodists) and the more liturgical (Weslyan Methodists); the Wesleys themselves (John and his brother Charles) greatly valued the Anglican liturgy and tradition - probably because they were Anglican priests! There are also a number of Calvinistic Methodists in Wales. In 2006 there were
seventy-five million Methodists worldwide.

Methodism began in England began when a group, lead by John Wesley and his younger brother Charles, formed a society within the Church of England in Oxford in 1729. Focused on Bible study, and a methodical approach to scriptures and Christian living. They ended up being called "Methodist". They were accustomed to receiving communion every sunday in their parish (Anglican) church, fasting regularly, and abstaining from most forms of amusement and luxury. They also visited the sick, the poor, and prisoners.
The early Methodists reacted against perceived apathy in the Church of England, became open-air preachers and established Methodist societies wherever they went. These societies were made up of individual classes - intimate groups where individuals were encouraged to confess their sins to one another and to build each other up. They also took part in love feasts which allowed for the sharing of testimony, a key feature of early Methodism.
Methodist preachers were notorious for their enthusiastic sermons and often accused of fanaticism. In those days, many members of the established (Anglican) 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." But the Methodists resisted the many attacks against their movement.
John Wesley came under the influence of the Moravians and Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, while George Whitefield adopted Calvinistic views. Consequently, their followers separated, those of Whitefield becoming Calvinistic Methodists. Wesleyan Methodists have followed Arminian theology.

Missions to America
From the time of the late 1760s, two Methodist lay preachers emigrated to America and formed societies. Philip Embury began the work in New York. Soon, Captain Webb from the British Army aided him. He formed a society in Philadelphia and itinerated along the coast. By 1770, two Methodist missionaries arrived from the British Connexion. They were Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor. Francis Asbury arrived shortly after. Asbury reorganized the mid-Atlantic work in accordance with the Wesleyan model. Internal conflict followed. Missionaries displaced most of the local preachers and irritated many of the leading lay members. Due to the war of independance and a call from Wesley, all the missionaries left the mid-Atlantic work. By 1778, the mid-Atlantic work was reduced to one circuit. Asbury refused to leave. He remained in Delaware during this period.
Robert Strawbridge began Methodist work in Maryland at around the same time as Embury began his work in New York. They did not work together and did not know of each other's existence. Strawbridge ordained himself and organized a circuit. He trained many very influential assistants who became some of the first leaders of American Methodism. His work grew rapidly in numbers and in geography. The British missionaries discovered Strawbridge's work and annexed it into the American connection. However, the native preachers continued to work side-by-side with the missionaries. Plus, they continued to recruit and dispatch more native preachers. Southern Methodism was not dependent on missionaries in the same way as mid-Atlantic Methodism.
Up until this time, with the exception of Strawbridge, none of the missionaries or American preachers was ordained. Consequently, the Methodist people received the sacraments at the hands of ministers from established Anglican churches. Most of the Anglican priests were Loyalists who fled to England, New York or Canada during the war. As such, a group of native preachers ordained themselves. This caused a split between the Asbury faction and the southern preachers. Asbury mediated the crisis by convincing the southern preachers to wait for Wesley's response to the sacramental crisis. That response came in 1784. At that time, Wesley sent the Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke to America to form an independent American Methodist church. The native circuit riders met in late December. Coke had orders to ordain Asbury as a joint superintendent of the new church. However, Asbury turned to the assembled conference and said he would not accept it unless the preachers voted him into that office. It was done. From that moment forward, the general superintendents received their authority from the conference. Later, Coke convinced the general conference that he and Asbury were bishops and added the title to the discipline. It caused a great deal of controversy. Wesley did not approve of the title.

By the 1792 general conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the controversy related to episcopal power boiled over. Ultimately, the delegates sided with Bishop Asbury. However, Primitive Methodists and Republican Methodists split off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early 1790s. Both operated in the Southeast and presaged the episcopal debates of later reformers. Regardless, Asbury remained the leading bishop of early American Methodism and did not share his "appointing" authority until Bishop McKendree was elected in 1808. Coke had problems with the American preachers. His authoritarian style alienated many. Soon, he became a missionary bishop of sorts and never had much influence in America.

Belief and Practices
Traditionally, Methodism has believed in the Arminian view of free will, via God's prevenient grace, as opposed to absolute predestination. This distinguishes it, historically, from Calvinist traditions such as Presbyterianism. However, in strongly Reformed areas such as Wales, Calvinistic Methodists remain, also called the Presbyterian Church of Wales. Also, more recent theological debates have cut across denominational lines, so that theologically liberal Methodist and Reformed churches have more in common with each other than with more conservative members of their own denominations.
John Wesley was not a systematic theologian, though Methodist ministerial students and trainee local preachers do study his sermons for his theology. The popular expression of Methodist theology is in the hymns of Charles Wesley. Since enthusiastic congregational singing was a part of the Evangelical movement, Wesleyan theology took root and spread through this channel.
Methodism affirms the traditional Christian belief in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as the orthodox understanding of the con-substantial humanity and divinity of Jesus. Most Methodists also affirm the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. In devotional terms, these confessions are said to embrace the biblical witness to God's activity in creation, encompass God's gracious self-involvement in the dramas of history, and anticipate the consummation of God's reign.

Sacramental Theology within Methodism tends to follow the historical interpretations and liturgies of Anglicanism. This stems from the origin of much Methodist theology and practice within the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, both of whom were priests of the Church of England. As affirmed by the Articles of Religion, Methodists recognize two Sacraments as being ordained of Christ: Baptism and Holy Communion. Methodism also affirms that there are many other Means of Grace which often function in a sacramental manner, but most Methodists do not recognize them as being Dominical Sacraments.
Methodists, based on John Wesley's own practices of theological reflection, make use of Tradition as a source of authority. Though not on the same level as Holy Scripture, tradition is a lens through which Scripture is interpreted. Theological discourse for Methodists almost always makes use of Scripture read inside the great Tradition of Christendom.

It is a traditional position of the church that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason. By reason, it is said, one reads and interprets Scripture. By reason one determines whether one's Christian witness is clear. By reason one asks questions of faith and seeks to understand God's action and will.
This church insists that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world. Scriptural holiness 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.
In liturgical matters, whereas most Methodist worship is modelled after the (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer, a unique feature of the American Methodist Church is its observance of the season of Kingdomtide, which encompasses the last 13 weeks before Advent, thus dividing the long season after Pentecost into two discrete segments. During Kingdomtide, Methodist liturgy emphasizes charitable work and alleviating the suffering of the poor.

A second distinctive liturgical feature of Methodism is the use of Covenant services. Although practice varies between different national churches, most Methodist churches annually follow the call of John Wesley for a renewal of their covenant with God. It is not unusual in Methodism for each congregation to normally hold an annual Covenant Service on the first convenient Sunday of the year, and Wesley's Covenant Prayer is still used, with minor modification, in the order of service. In it, Wesley avers man's total reliance upon God, as the following excerpt demonstrates:

...Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honour, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both... Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
...I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal...

British Methodism does not have bishops, though 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. It has however always been characterised by a strong central organization, the Connexion, which holds an annual Conference (note that the Methodist Church retains the 18th century spelling "connexion" for many purposes). The connexion is divided into Districts in the charge of a Chair (who may be male or female), except the new London District, created in September 2006, which has three chairs with a "Lead" chair. Methodist districts often correspond approximately, in geographical terms, to counties - as do the dioceses of the Church of England. The districts are divided into circuits governed by the quarterly Circuit Meeting and led and administrated principally by a "superintendent minister", and ministers are appointed to these rather than to individual churches (though some large inner-city churches, known as Central Halls, are designated as circuits in themselves - Westminster Central Hall, opposite Westminster Abbey in central London is the best known). Most circuits have fewer ministers than churches, and the majority of services are led by lay local preachers, or by supernumerary ministers (ministers who have retired, called supernumerary because they are not counted for official purposes in the numbers 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 collectively with the ministers form what is normally known as the Circuit Leadership Team.

Schisms within the original Methodist church, and independent revivals, led to the formation of a number of separate denominations calling themselves Methodist. The largest of these were the Primitive Methodist church, deriving from a revival at Mow Cop in Staffordshire, the Bible Christians and the United Methodist Church (not connected with the American denomination of the same name, but a union of three smaller denominations). The original church became known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church to distinguish it from these bodies. The three major streams of British Methodism united in 1932 to form the current Methodist Church of Great Britain. The Wesleyan Reform Union  and the Independent Methodist Connexion still remain separate. The Primitive Methodist Church (which is non-episcopal) had branches in the USA which still continue.

In the 1960s, the Methodist Church made ecumenical overtures to the Church of England, aimed at church unity. Formally, these failed when they were rejected by the Church of England's General Synod in 1972; conversations and co-operation continued, however, leading in 2003 to the signing of a covenant between the two churches. From the 1970s onward, the Methodist Church also started several Local Ecumenical Projects (LEPs, later renamed Local Ecumenical Partnerships) both with the Church of England and with the United Reformed Church, which involved sharing churches, schools and in some cases ministers.

Traditionally, Methodism proved particularly popular in Wales and Cornwall, both regions noted for their non-conformism and distrust of the Church of England. It was also very strong in the old mill towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, where the Methodists stressed that the working-classes were equal to the upper-classes in the eyes of God.
The Methodist Council 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.

Many Methodist bodies around the world see the British Methodist Church as their parent church. Some strong groups include the Methodist Church Ghana and the Methodist Church Nigeria.

The Methodist Church (UK)
United Methodist Church (US)
United Methodist Resource site
Free Methodist Church of North America

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