The United Methodist Church traces its main root to the Methodist Movement of John Wesley in England in the 1700s. The first official organization in the United States occurred in Baltimore in 1784 with the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Christmas Conference, with Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as the leaders.
The church in its present form traces its roots to the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1784. It grew rapidly in the young country as it employed circuit riders, many of whom were laymen, to travel the mostly rural nation by horseback to preach the Gospel and to establish churches until there was scarcely any village in the United States without a Methodist presence. The Methodist Episcopal Church rapidly became the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with 4000 circuit riders by 1844.
In the more than 220 years since 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church, like many other Protestant denominations, has seen a number of divisions and mergers. In 1820, the Methodist Protestant Church split from the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of laity having a voice and vote in the administration of the church, insisting that clergy should not be the only ones to have any determination in how the church was to be operated. In 1844, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church split into two conferences because of tensions over slavery and the power of bishops in the denomination.
The two General Conferences, Methodist Episcopal Church (or northern section) and Methodist Episcopal Church, South remained separate until the 1939 merger of these two denominations plus a third, the Methodist Protestant Church, the resulting church being known as The Methodist Church.
On April 23, 1968, The United Methodist Church was created when The Evangelical United Brethren Church (represented by Bishop Reuben H. Mueller) and The Methodist Church (represented by Bishop Lloyd Christ Wicke) joined hands at the constituting General Conference in Dallas, Texas. With the words,
"Lord of the Church, we are united in Thee, in Thy Church and now in The United Methodist Church,"the new denomination was given birth by the two churches that had distinguished histories and influential ministries in various parts of the world.
Combining the personal holiness emphasis of the evangelical influence in the church with the outreach emphasis from the social gospel proponents has created a combination of practices within The United Methodist Church.
The plenary session is presided over by an active bishop who has been selected by committee of delegates to the Conference. It is not uncommon for different bishops to preside on different days. The presiding officer usually is accompanied by parliamentarians.
Decisions in between the four-year meetings are made by the Mission Council (usually consisting of church bishops). One of the most high profile decisions in recent years by one of the Councils was a decision by the Mission Council of the South Central Jurisdiction which in March 2007 approved a 99-year lease of 36 acres at Southern Methodist University for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The decision generated controversy in light of the Bush's support of the Iraq War which the church bishops have criticized. A debate over whether the decision should or could be submitted for approval by the Southern Jurisdictional Conference at its July 2008 meeting in Dallas, Texas remains unresolved.
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 denominational level. These organizations address specific topic areas of denomination-wide concern with administrative offices throughout the United States.
The first Methodist clergy were ordained by John Wesley, a minister in the Church of England, because of the crisis caused by the American Revolution which isolated the Methodists in the States from the Church of England and its sacraments. Today, the clergy includes men and women who are ordained by Bishops as Elders and Deacons and are appointed to various ministries. Elders in the United Methodist Church (UMC) 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, liturgists, educators, business administrators, and a number of other ministries. Elders and deacons are generally required to obtain master's degrees (M.Div. or Th.M.), or other appropriate degrees that are at a minimum at the baccalaureate level, before commissioning and then ultimately ordination. Elders in full connection are each a member of their Annual Conference Order of Elders. Likewise each Deacon in full connection is a member of their Annual Conference Order of Deacons (abbr. OD, for Ordinarium Diaconates, lat.).
The main difference between elders and deacons is that elders, in a priestly function, connect the people to God, while deacons, in a servant leadership function, connect the people of God to service in the world. In the priestly function, the elder has the authority to preside over the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy communion, while deacons are to assist in the leadership of these sacraments. Elders itinerate: they are appointed to a place of leadership at the decision of their bishop. Deacons are also appointed to a place of service by the bishop, but they do not itinerate. Deacons choose a place of service and request appointment from the bishop. Deacons whose primary appointment is beyond the local church also have a secondary appointment to a worshiping congregation. (The United Methodist Book of Discipline spells out these distinctions.)
The Methodist Church has allowed ordination of women with full rights since 1956, based on Galatians 3:28 NRSV: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
At the 1996 General Conference the ordination order of transitional deacon was abolished. This created a new order known as the "commissioned elder." The commissioned elder is a recent seminary graduate who serves three years in a full-time appointment. During this three-year probationary period, the commissioned elder is granted sacramental ministry in their local appointment. This was a change in its theology of ministry for the United Methodist Church in the ordering of its ministry. For the first time in its history non-ordained pastors became a normal expectation, rather than an extraordinary provision for ministry.
There is also another clerical classification called the Fellowship of Local Pastors. Elders may minister and celebrate the sacraments in any church or any other setting (where invited), while local pastors may only serve in ministry and administer the sacraments in the specific church to which they are appointed by their bishop; as such, their ministry is often understood as a direct extension of the ministry of the bishop, for its authority is directly and inseparably linked to it. Local pastors are not required to have advanced degrees but are required to pass licensing courses and examinations before the District Committee on Ministry, and are further required to take yearly classes, which if completed before retirement may also lead to ordination as an Elder. Local Pastors are not ordained. Local Pastors preside over the sacraments in their local appointments.
All clergy appointments are made and fixed annually by the Resident Bishop on the advice of the Annual Conference Cabinet, which is composed of the Area Provost/Dean (if one is appointed) and the several District Superintendents of the Districts of the Annual Conference. Until the Bishop has read the appointments at the session of the Annual Conference, no appointments are officially fixed. Many Annual Conferences try to avoid making appointment changes 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. Appointment tenures in extension ministries, such as Campus Ministry, Missions, Higher Education and other ministries beyond the local church are often even longer. Across the denomination, longer tenures are becoming more common.
Another position in the United Methodist Church is that of the lay speaker. Although not considered clergy, lay speakers often preach during services of worship when an ordained elder or deacon is unavailable. There are two categories of lay speakers: local church lay speakers, who serve in and through their local churches, and certified lay speakers, who serve in their own churches, in other churches, and through district or conference projects and programs. To be recognized as local church lay speakers, they must be recommended by their pastor and Church Council or Charge Conference, and complete the basic course for lay speaking. Each year they must reapply, reporting how they have served and continued to learn during that year. To be recognized as certified lay speakers, they must be recommended by their pastor and Church Council or Charge Conference, complete the basic course and one advanced lay speaking course, and be interviewed by the District or Conference Committee on Lay Speaking. They must report and reapply annually; and they must complete at least one advanced course every three years.
The 2004 General Conference created another class of ministry, the Certified Lay Minister (CLM). CLMs are not considered clergy but instead remain lay members of the United Methodist Church. They must complete coursework beyond that of Certified Lay Speaker and then can be assigned to provide pastoral leadership to a church by the District Superintendent. They do not have sacramental authority; Certified Lay Ministers serve under the supervision of an ordained clergy person who is expected to provide the sacraments to those churches.
There are two classes of lay membership in the UMC: Baptized Members and Professing Members.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) practices infant and adult baptism. Baptized Members are those who have been baptized as an infant or child, but who have not subsequently professed their own faith. These Baptized Members become Professing Members through confirmation and sometimes the profession of faith. Individuals who were not previously baptized are baptized as part of their profession of faith and thus become Professing Members in this manner. Individuals may also become a Professing Member through transfer from another Christian denomination.
Baptism is a sacrament in the UMC, (while confirmation and profession of faith are not). The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church directs the local church to offer membership preparation or confirmation classes to all people, including adults. The term confirmation is generally reserved for youth, while some variation on membership class is generarlly used for adults wishing to join the church. The Book of Discipline normally allows any youth at least completing sixth grade to participate, although the pastor has discretionary authority to allow a younger person to participate. In confirmation and membership preparation classes, students learn about Church and the Methodist-Christian theological tradition in order to profess their ultimate faith in Christ.
The lay members of the church are extremely important in the UMC. The Professing Members are part of all major decisions in the church. General, Jurisdictional, Central, and Annual Conferences are all required to have an equal number of laity and clergy.
In a local church, many decisions are made by an administrative board or council. This council is made up of laity representing various other organizations within the local church. The elder or local pastor sits on the council as a voting member.
While many United Methodist congregations operate in the evangelical tradition, others 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 (Methodist), Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm (United Brethren), and Jacob Albright (Evangelical). 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 officially established Doctrinal Standards of United Methodism are:
These Doctrinal Standards are constitutionally protected and nearly impossible to change or remove. Other doctrines of the United Methodist Church are found in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
The basic beliefs of The United Methodist Church include:
The United Methodist Church recognizes the historic ecumenical creeds, the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed;they are used frequently in services of worship. The Book of Discipline also recognizes the importance of the Chalcedonian Creed of the Council of Chalcedon.
The key emphasis of Wesley's theology relates to how Divine grace operates within the individual. Wesley defined the Way of Salvation as the operation of grace in at least three parts: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace.
Prevenient grace, or the grace that "goes before" us, is given to all people. It is that power which enables us to love and motivates us to seek a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This grace is the present work of God to turn us from our sin-corrupted human will to the loving will of the Father. In this work, God desires that we might sense both our sinfulness before God and God’s offer of salvation. Prevenient grace allows those tainted by sin to nevertheless make a truly free choice to accept or reject God's salvation in Christ.
Justifying Grace or Accepting Grace is that grace, offered by God to all people, that we receive by faith and trust in Christ, through which God pardons the believer of sin. It is in justifying grace we are received by God, in spite of our sin. In this reception, we are forgiven through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The justifying grace cancels our guilt and empowers us to resist the power of sin and to fully love God and neighbor. Today, justifying grace is also known as conversion, "accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior," or being "born again." John Wesley originally called this experience the New Birth. This experience can occur in different ways; it can be one transforming moment, such as an altar call experience, or it may involve a series of decisions across a period of time. Sanctifying Grace is that grace of God which sustains the believers in the journey toward "perfection of love": a genuine love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and a genuine love of our neighbors as ourselves. Sanctifying grace enables us to respond to God by leading a Spirit-filled and Christ-like life aimed toward love.
Wesleyan theology maintains that salvation is the act of God's grace entirely, from invitation, to pardon, to growth in holiness. Furthermore, God's prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace interact dynamically in the lives of Christians from birth to death.
For Wesley, good works were the fruit of one's salvation, not the way in which that salvation was earned. Faith and good works go hand in hand in Methodist theology: a living tree naturally and inevitably bears fruit. Wesleyan theology rejects the doctrine of eternal security, believing that salvation can possibly, in extreme cases, be lost. Wesley emphasized that believers must continue in their relationship with Christ, preferably improving this relationship, throughout their lifetime in order to remain in grace with God.
A key outgrowth of this theology is the United Methodist dedication not only to the Evangelical Gospel of repentance and a personal relationship with God, but also to the Social Gospel and a commitment to social justice issues that have included abolition, women's suffrage, labor rights, civil rights, and ministry to the poor. Thus, Wesleyan theology is sometimes characterized as "progressive evangelical."
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 characterized by Arminian theology with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit to bring holiness into the life of the participating believer. The United Methodist Church believes in prima scriptura, seeing the Holy Bible as the primary authority in the Church and using tradition, reason, and experience to interpret it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit (see Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Today, the UMC is generally considered one of the more moderate and tolerant denominations with respect to race, gender, and ideology though the denomination itself actually includes a very wide spectrum of attitudes.
In making an appeal to a toleration of diversity of theological opinion, John Wesley said, "Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?" The phrase "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity" has also become a maxim among Methodists, who have always maintained a great diversity of opinion on many matters within the Church.
The United Methodist Church allows for a wide range of theological and political beliefs. For example, Republican President George W. Bush is United Methodist and Republican Vice President Dick Cheney attends a United Methodist Church. In addition, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator Max Cleland are also United Methodists. Many practicing United Methodists believe this flexibility is one of the UMC's strongest qualities.
Historically, the Methodist Church has supported the temperance movement. John Wesley warned against the dangers of drinking in his famous sermon "The Use of Money" and in his letter to an alcoholic. At one time, Methodist ministers had to take a pledge not to drink and encouraged their congregations to do the same. Today, the United Methodist Church states that it "affirms our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God's liberating and redeeming love for persons." In fact, the United Methodist Church uses unfermented grape juice in the sacrament of Holy Communion, thus "expressing pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, enabling the participation of children and youth, and supporting the church's witness of abstinence."
The United Methodist Church, along with other Methodist churches, also condemns capital punishment, saying that it cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life. The Church also holds that the death penalty falls unfairly and unequally upon marginalized persons including the poor, the uneducated, ethnic and religious minorities, and persons with mental and emotional illnesses. The United Methodist Church also believes that Jesus explicitly repudiated the lex talionis in Matthew 5:38-39 and abolished the death penalty in John 8:31. The General Conference of the United Methodist Church calls for its bishops to uphold opposition to capital punishment and for governments to enact an immediate moratorium on carrying out the death penalty sentence.
The United Methodist Church opposes gambling, believing that it feeds on human greed and invites people to place their trust in possessions, rather than in God, who Christians should "love ... with all your heart" (Mark 12:29-30). It quotes the Apostle Paul who states that:
9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:9-10a NRSV)The United Methodist Church therefore holds that:
In accordance with its view of Scripture, the Church officially considers, "the practice of homosexuality (to be) incompatible with Christian teaching." It states that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" cannot be ordained as ministers, and supports "…laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman."
In addition, the United Methodist Church prohibits the celebration of same-sex unions. Rev. Jimmy Creech was defrocked after a highly publicized church trial in 1999 in response to his participation in same-sex union ceremonies.. It forbids any United Methodist board, agency, committee, commission, or council to give United Methodist funds to any gay organization or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.
In 1987, a United Methodist church court in New Hampshire defrocked Methodist minister Rose Mary Denman for being openly gay. In 2005, clergy credentials were removed from Irene Elizabeth Stroud after she was convicted in a church trial of violating Church law by engaging in a lesbian relationship; this conviction was later upheld by the Church Judicial Council, the highest court in the denomination. The Judicial Council also affirmed that a Virginia pastor had the right to deny local church membership to an openly gay man.
According to The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church,
"The United Methodist Church calls upon all who choose to take up arms or who order others to do so to evaluate their actions in accordance with historic church teaching limiting resort to war, including questions of proportionality, legal authority, discrimination between combatants and noncombatants, just cause, and probability of success....The United Methodist Church opposes conscription as incompatible with the Gospel message. Therefore, the Church supports and extends its ministry to those persons who conscientiously oppose all war, or any particular war, and who therefore refuse to serve in the armed forces or to cooperate with systems of military conscription. However, the United Methodist Church also supports and extends its ministry to those persons who conscientiously choose to serve in the armed forces or to accept alternative service. This is because as Christians they are aware that neither the way of military action, nor the way of inaction is always righteous before God.
The United Methodist Church believes war is incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Therefore, the Church rejects war as an instrument of national foreign policy, to be employed only as a last resort in the prevention of such evils as genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression. It insists that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, The United Methodist Church endorses general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church is just one branch of the universal Christian church. Therefore, The United Methodist Church is active in ecumenical relations with other denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church. It is a member of both the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, and Christian Churches Together.
In April 2005, the United Methodist Council of Bishops approved "A Proposal for Interim Eucharistic Sharing." This document is the first step toward full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which the UMC bishops hope will happen by 2008. The ELCA approved this same document in August 2005. At the 2008 General Conference, the United Methodist Church approved full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA will vote on the issue in August 2009.
The United Methodist Church has since 1985 been exploring a possible merger with three historically African-American Methodist denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. A Commission on Pan Methodist Cooperation and Union formed in 2000 to carry out work on such a merger.
There are also a number of churches such as the Methodist Church in India (MCI), that are "autonomous affiliated" churches in relation to the United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) is also active in the World Methodist Council, an interdenominational group composed of various churches in the tradition of John Wesley to promote the Gospel throughout the world. On July 18, 2006, delegates to the World Methodist Council voted unanimously to adopt the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," which was approved in 1999 by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.