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The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist, the largest mainline, and, after the Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States. In 2004 worldwide membership was about 11 million members: 8.6 million in the United States, 2.4 million in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) was formed in 1968 as a result of a merger between the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church which were themselves the results of mergers. The Methodist Church was formed in 1939 as the result of a merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.
The United Methodist Church is organized into conferences. The highest level is called the General Conference and is the only organization which may speak officially for the church. The General Conference meets every four years (quadrennium). Legislative changes are recorded in The Book of Discipline which is revised after each General Conference. Non-legislative resolutions are recorded in The Book of Resolutions, which is published after each General Conference, and expire after eight years unless passed again by a subsequent session of General Conference. The last General Conference was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2004. The next General Conference is scheduled to be held in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008. Bishops, Councils, Committees, Boards, Elders, etc., are not permitted to speak on behalf of the United Methodist Church as this authority is reserved solely for the General Conference in accordance with the Book of Discipline.
Beneath the General Conference are Jurisdictional and Central Conferences which also meet every four years. The United States is divided into five jurisdictions: Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central and Western. Outside the United States the church is divided into seven central conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central & Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and Philippines. The main purpose of the jurisdictions and central conferences is to elect and appoint bishops, the chief administrators of the church. Bishops thus elected serve Episcopal Areas, which consist of one or more Annual Conferences.
The Annual Conference, roughly the equivalent of a diocese in the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church or a synod in some Lutheran denominations such as the ELCA, is the basic unit of organization within the UMC. The term Annual Conference is often used to refer to the geographical area it covers as well as the frequency of meeting. Clergy are members of their annual conference rather than of any local congregation, and are appointed to a local church or other charge annually by the conference's resident bishop at the meeting of the annual conference. In many ways, the UMC operates as a confederation of the annual conferences, and interpretations of the Book of Discipline by one conference are not binding upon another.
Annual conferences are further divided into Districts, each served by a District Superintendent. The district superintendents are also appointed annually from the ordained elders of the annual conference by the Bishop. District superintendents are not superior in ordination to other elders; upon completion of their service as superintendent they routinely return to serving local congregations. The annual conference cabinet is composed of the resident bishop and the district superintendents.
While the General Conference is the only organization that can officially speak for the United Methodist Church as a whole, there are several councils, boards, commissions, and agencies that the church operates on the denomination level. These organizations address specific topic areas of denomination-wide concern.
- General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA)
- General Boards of Pension and Health Benefits (GBOPHB)
- General Board of Church and Society (GBCS)
- General Board of Discipleship (GBOD)
- General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM)
- General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM)
- General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH)
- General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (GCUIC)
- General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR)
- General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW)
- General Commission on United Methodist Men (GCUMM)
- United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH)
- United Methodist Communications (UMCom)
- United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)
The first Methodist clergy were ordained by John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England, because of the crisis caused by the American Revolution which cut the Methodists in the States off 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 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, educators, business administrators, and a number of other ministries. Elders and deacons are required to obtain master's degrees before ordination.
There is also another clerical order called local pastors. Elders may serve in and perform sacraments in any church while local pastors may only serve in and perform sacraments in the specific church that they were appointed to by their bishop. Local pastors are not required to have advanced degrees but are required to take yearly classes.
All clergy appointments are made annually. Until the Bishop has read the appointments at the session of the Annual Conference, no appointments are fixed. Only under special circumstances will an appointment be changed between sessions of Annual Conference. While an appointment is made one year at a time, it is most common for an appointment to be continued for multiple years. One recent survey concluded that small church appointments currently average three to four years, while large church appointments average seven to nine years.
There are two classes of lay membership in the UMC: Baptized Members and Professing Members.
The 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. Baptized Members become Professing Members through confirmation and profession of faith. New members who were not previously baptized are baptized as part of their profession of faith, becoming Professing Members.
Baptism is a sacrament in the UMC, but confirmation and profession of faith are not, although many churches still hold confirmation classes for members, usually younger ones. This is where lay members learn about Church and the 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, all 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 but only as a non-voting member.
United Methodist beliefs are similar to many mainline Protestant denominations. Although United Methodist beliefs have evolved over time, these beliefs can be traced to the writings of the church's founders, John Wesley and Charles Wesley (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:
- the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church;
- the Confession of Faith (United Methodist) of the Evangelical United Brethren Church;
- the General Rules of the Methodist Societies;
- the Standard Sermons of John Wesley;
- and John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
These Doctrinal Standards are constitutionally protected and nearly impossible to change or remove.
The basic beliefs of the United Methodist Church include:
- Triune God. God is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- Scripture. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.
- Sacraments. The UMC recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. The Church generally practices infant baptism and recognizes baptisms from other denominations, and also practices open communion.
- Inclusivity. The UMC includes and welcomes people of all races, cultures, and ages.
- Free will. The UMC believes that people, while corrupted by sin, are free to make their own choices because of God's divine grace.
- Grace. The UMC believes that God gives unmerited favor freely to all people.
Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases
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 three parts: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace. Prevenient grace, given to all people, is that which enables us to love and that which motivates us to seek a closer relationship to God. Prevenient grace is the beginning of restoration of God’s grace to humanity from our alienated condition of sin. This grace effects a partial restoring of our sin-corrupted human natures so that we might sense our need 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 is that grace, offered by God to all people and received or accepted by faith in Christ, through which God pardons the believer of sin. It is justifying grace that, in spite of our sin, enables God to receive us and, through Christ, to forgive us. The justifying grace cancels our guilt and empowers us to resist the power of sin and to fully love God and neighbor. Sanctifying grace is that grace 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, once justified, 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.
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 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 others. Thus, Wesleyan theology is sometimes characterized as "progressive evangelical".
Characterization of Wesleyan Theology
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. United Methodists see the Bible as the primary authority in the Church and use tradition, reason, and experience to interpret it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Today, the UMC is generally considered one of the more moderate to liberal and tolerant denominations with respect to race, gender, and ideology.
Diversity Within Methodist Beliefs
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 and Vice President Dick Cheney are practicing United Methodists as are Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards.
One source of considerable controversy within the church (as in much of mainline Protestantism) is its official positions on homosexuality. Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has declared "homosexual practice" to be "incompatible with Christian teaching." Following the 1972 incompatibility clause other restrictions have been added at subsequent General Conferences. Currently the Book of Discipline prohibits the ordination of "practicing, self-avowed homosexuals," forbids clergy from blessing or presiding over same-sex unions, forbids the use of UMC facilities for same-sex union ceremonies and prohibits the use of Church funds for "gay caucuses" or other groups that "promote the acceptance of homosexuality."
Despite this language, not all members of the Church are of one mind on this issue. Preceding the incompatibility clause the Book of Discipline clearly states that "homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth." Some believe that this "sacred worth" clause stands in contradiction to the following statement regarding the incompatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching. Others, because the issue focuses on practice and not orientation or desire as such, see no such contradiction. The Book of Discipline affirms that all persons, both heterosexual and homosexual, are included in the ministry of the church and can receive the gift of God's grace. While the Book of Discipline supports the civil rights of homosexual persons and rejects the abuse of homosexuals by families and churches, it also calls for laws defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Disagreement over the Church's official stance on homosexuality has led to intense debate within the denomination. Failed efforts have been made to liberalize the church's position at every General Conference since the introduction of the incompatibility clause in 1972; delegates from annual conferences in the Northeast and on the West Coast typically vote to do so, but are outnumbered by those from the South, Midwest, and Africa. Because the margin of defeat for these liberalizing measures has (for the most part) been steadily increasing for several General Conferences some observers claim to see a "conservative drift" in the denomination as a whole, though, of course, observers disagree on whether or not any supposed "drift" is a good or bad thing.
Other divisive issues that generally receive less attention include: abortion, "just war," the death penalty, and certain theological issues.
At the 2004 General Conference, a memo from a private meeting was circulated publically suggesting an "Amicable" Separation, allowing those who disapprove of Church policy to leave the denomination without losing their Church properties. Though this idea never came to the floor as a piece of legislation, the Delegates voted nearly unanimously to enact a resolution reaffirming a commitment to unity within the denomination.
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. It is a member of both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches as well as Churches Uniting in Christ. It is also a member of Christian Churches Together, a more inclusive ecumenical organization including Evangelicals and Catholics.
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, which the UMC bishops hope will happen by 2008. The ELCA approved this same document in August 2005.  The church is also in dialogue with the Episcopal Church for full communion by 2012.  The two denominations are working on a document called "Confessing Our Faith Together."
The United Methodist Church is in full communion with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Moravian Church.