The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist denomination, and the second-largest Protestant one, 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.
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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 UMC is organized into conferences. The highest level is called the General Conference and is the only organization which may speak officially for the UMC. 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.
Beneath the General Conference are Jurisdictional and Central Conferences which also meet every four years. Their chief purpose is to elect and appoint bishops to serve the UMC. The United States is divided into five Jursidictions: Northeast, Southeast, North Central, South Central and Western. Outside the United States the UMC is divided into seven Central Conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central & Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and Philippines.
The Annual Conference is roughly the equivalent of a diocese in the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church or a synod in some Lutheran denominations like the ELCA. The term Annual Conference refers to the geographical area it covers as well as the frequency of meeting. Annual Conferences are further divided into Districts, each served by a District Superintendent.
While the General Conference is the only organization that can officially speak for the UMC, there are several boards, commissions, and agencies that the UMC operates on the denomination level. These include the following:
- General Council on Ministries
- General Council on Finance and Administration
- General Board of Church and Society
- General Board of Discipleship
- General Board of Higher Education and Ministry
- General Board of Pension and Health Benefits
- General Commission on Archives and History
- General Commission on Communication
- General Commission On Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns
- General Commission on Religion and Race
- General Commission on the Status and Role of Women
- General Commission on United Methodist Men
- The United Methodist Publishing House
The chief administrators of the UMC are the bishops, who serve Episcopal areas consisting of one or more Annual Conferences. The Annual Conference cabinet consists of the bishop and the district superintendents.
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.
The laity consists of all confirmed members of the church. Although it is not a sacrament in the UMC, confirmation is a requirement to join the church. The lay members of the church are extremely important in the UMC. They are part of all major decisions in the church, and 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 from 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 UM 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).
The basic beliefs of the United Methodist Church include:
- 1. Trinitary God. God is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- 2. Scripture. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.
- 3. Sacraments. UMC recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. UMC generally practices infant baptism and recognizes baptisms from other denominations. UMC practices open communion.
- 4. Inclusive church. UMC includes and welcomes people of all races, cultures, and ages.
- 5. Free will. UMC believes that people are free to make their own choices; there is no predestination.
- 6. Grace. UMC believes that God gives his love freely to all people. This was a major emphasis of John Wesley.
The UMC is considered one of the more liberal and tolerant denominations with respect to race, gender, and ideology.
One source of considerable controversy within the church (as in much of mainline Protestantism) is its official positions on homosexuality. As it stands, the Book of Discipline declares homosexuality to be "incompatible with Christian teaching," prohibits the ordination of "practicing, self-avowed homosexuals," forbids clergy from blessing or presiding over same-sex unions, and forbids the use of UMC facilities for same-sex union ceremonies. Failed efforts have been made to liberalize the church's position at every general conference since the merger, beginning in 1972; delegates from annual conferences on the East and West Coasts typically vote to do so, but are outnumbered by those from the South, Midwest, and overseas.
- Official website (http://www.umc.org/)
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