Governance of the British Methodist Church
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The governing structure of the British Methodist Church is based on Circuits (headed by a Superintendent Minister), which are grouped into several large Districts.
A Circuit is a group of individual Societies or local churches under the care of one or more Ministers In the scale of organisation, the Circuit is about mid-way. Upwards, Circuits are grouped in Districts. The Districts form the Connexion, which is the overall national Methodist Church. Downwards from the Circuit, a Class is the main sub-division of a local Church. This overall structure derives from John Wesley's organisational genius. This organisational structure does not apply to many non-Wesleyan branches of Methodism, nor to some of those that split from Wesleyan Methodism, such as the Wesleyan Reform Union.
The Circuit is the main functional unit of Methodism, in that a large number of activities are organised at this level. For example, Ministers are appointed firstly to the Circuit and secondly to the pastoral care of specific churches. Preaching appointments for both Ministers and Local Preachers are organised by the Circuit and advertised on a Circuit Plan issued every 3 months by the Superintendent Minister.
- 1 Historical origins
- 2 Methodist structures
- 3 People
- 4 Other countries
- 5 Case history - the Wetton and Longnor Methodist Circuit
- 6 References
The first Circuits, 1746
The earliest preachers under John Wesley were itinerant, and preached around an area from a home base. "Circuit", or "Round" as they were first named, was therefore the natural name for the area they covered. At first they were named after their founder of main itinerant preacher. For example, 'John Bennet's Round', or the 'Circuit of William Darney's Societies'. The first official list dates from 1746.
- London (including Surrey, Kent, Essex, Brentford, Egham, Windsor, Wycombe);
- Bristol (including Somerset, Portland, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucester);
- Evesham (including Shrewsbury, Leominster, Hereford, and from Stroud to Wednesbury);
- Yorkshire (including Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Lincolnshire);
Within that area a number of "Societies" would be formed. During the 18th century, John Wesley did not intend establishing churches in a new denomination. His vision was for a revival movement within the Church of England. The Societies would be a gathering of people who met for Bible study, prayer, mutual encouragement, and preaching. Usually, this was during the week so that they could attend services in the Parish Church. The earliest Circuits covered a very large area, but gradually shrank as the number of societies increased.
Milestones in Wesley's early Methodism
The first (Wesleyan) Methodist Conference took place at the Foundery in June 1744. The known first Plan (of preaching appointments) was made by Wesley in London in 1754. The first recorded Quarterly Meeting (the usual business meeting of the Circuit) was at Todmorden-Edge, 18 October 1748.
John Wesley drew on existing structures, especially those used by the Moravians, who had been so instrumental in his own spiritual development. "At their Herrnhut colony he witnessed gatherings for testimony and mutual edification, select bands, classes, conferences on doctrine, open air preaching, preaching by laymen, itinerant preachers, and orphan homes. Most of these features had, indeed, been anticipated by the Waldenses in the sixteenth century, between whose organisation and that of the Moravians and Methodists there are striking, though probably accidental, resemblances.
The beginnings of Class Meetings
The Wesleyan societies were composed of Bands, which were meetings of 5 to 10 like-minded people seeking Christian Perfection, and considered the 'inner core' of the Societies. John Wesley drew up rules for these in December 1738. Some of the Societies were known by the name of the person in whose home they met, such as 'Mr. Fox's Society', and 'Mr. Ingham's Society'. The origin of the Class was partly accidental. By 1742, John and Charles Wesley had about 1100 Methodists in London for whom they felt a pastoral responsibility, but could not keep in touch with them and continue their other work. While in Bristol, John Wesley met some members of the Society there. One, Captain Foy, suggested that every member give a penny a week until a debt there be paid. When someone objected due to the poverty of many, he offered that 11 of the poorest be grouped with him, he would collect the subscription, and make up any shortfall if any could not pay. Soon afterwards, on hearing that someone was not living as he should, John Wesley realised that the group of 12 for collection of money was the basis of a group for weekly meeting for prayer, Bible study, and mutual encouragement. One function of the Class Leader is that the Class Ticket, a quarterly membership ticket for Methodists, be given to his class members, and withheld from those whom they judged unworthy of being called Methodists. The Class Ticket is the "membership card" for Methodists.
Wesley did not claim the Class as 'divine institution', but as wise for practical regulation of Methodists.
The following is a summary of the main units.
- the whole of Methodism within a country under the authority of the Conference. Note that different branches of Methodism mean that in any one country there may be more than one Connexion.
- in Britain for example, typically from one to 3 counties in extent, grouping together from 10 to 50 Circuits. As at 2008, there are 32 Districts in Great Britain, with about 630 Circuits, averaging about 20  in each.
- a grouping of 2 or more Societies, under a Superintendent Minister and with other Ministers according to the number of members. Circuits are usually named after town or village of the society that is the "Head of Circuit", or after the general area, for example a river valley. As at 2008, there are about 5,900 individual Churches, averaging just over 9 per Circuit.
- the local Church in modern Methodism, originally the group of people who met for Methodist fellowship.
- a group of Methodists, normally about 12, under a Class Leader.
- the individual Christian who joined a Methodist society
The people involved in Methodist organisation are as follows.
The individual Christian who is a Member of a Methodist Society is both a member of a Class, a group of nominally 12, under a Class Leader, and also a member of a local Methodist Church or Society. The Class Leader has some pastoral responsibility for the Class.
Early Methodism (as organised by Wesley) had Local Preachers and Travelling Preachers. A Local Preacher was a layman, perhaps a farmer in our example, appointed to preach within his own Circuit. A Travelling Preacher, or Minister in modern Methodism, is appointed by Conference to serve for a limited time in a Circuit and then move around the country to any other Circuit where Conference may send him. In John Wesley's time, this could be as little as a few months. As Methodism became more settled as a denomination, this was from one to four years, now typically five to ten years. Some Circuits may also have Lay Pastors.
The non-pastoral work is done by Society Stewards and Circuit Stewards. These are appointed to various functions, such as Treasurer, or Property Steward, etc. to look after various practical needs. Usually these are voluntary workers, but some situations also require paid staff.
Methodism holds in principle the priesthood of all believers, which is a Protestant doctrine that all true Christians are of equal value to God, and Church offices are functional rather than hierarchical. So while this list implies a chain of authority, it is of function rather than rank.
The Governing body of British Methodism is Conference.
President of Conference
An ordained Minister, with the Vice-President being a layman (or woman). The one exception was (layman) William Hartley, elected President of the Primitive Methodist Conference in 1909. The normal term of service is one year.
Chairman of the District
An Ordained Minister who is appointed to take administrative responsibility, along with pastoral responsibility for the Ministers, for a ‘‘District’‘. This is undertaken as if a normal appointment to serve in a Circuit, and the term of service is typically some 5 to 10 years.
Superintendent and Circuit Ministers
The senior Minister on any Circuit is the Superintendent, who may be the only Minister, though the current trend for amalgamation of Circuits makes this rare. The superintendent will also have pastoral responsibility for at least one of the local churches on the Circuit, with pastoral responsibility for others being allocated to the other Ministers.
Suitably trained, and appointed, lay preachers who take worship services in any church on the Circuit to which they may be appointed. The ‘‘Plan of Preaching Appointments’‘ is prepared every 3 months by the Superintendent Minister. In Wesleyan Methodism it is not usual practice for Local Preachers to administer the Sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion), but in Primitive Methodism (1811 to 1932 in Britain), the Local Preachers did.
The principal officers are the ‘‘Circuit Stewards’‘, who are officially responsible for the running of the Circuit. They are collectively responsible for the finances of the Circuit, though almost invariably one of them will be appointed Circuit Treasurer.
These include the various Church Stewards, as well as Treasurer, Secretary, and others.
The ‘‘Circuit Meeting’‘ is the main governing body of the Circuit, and consists of the Circuit Ministers, Circuit Officers, and officers and elected representatives of the various churches in the Circuit. The Preachers (Local Preachers and Ministers) also hold a quarterly ‘‘Local Preachers' Meeting’‘ that governs worship and preaching issues.
The ‘‘Church Council’‘ is held twice per year or as required to govern the business of individual churches.
Some Methodist churches in countries outside Britain have retained the circuit system; others have not, or never had it. Where Methodist churches have entered national united churches (such as the Church of South India or the United Church of Canada, the circuit system has generally disappeared or been greatly modified even if it existed before. The US United Methodist Church does not at present operate on a circuit system, though something like it is reappearing in places. The Methodist Church of New Zealand has a circuit system, but refers to its circuits as parishes.
Case history - the Wetton and Longnor Methodist Circuit
The diagrammatic map of the Leek area shows the number of "preaching stations" and chapels in existence during the 18th and 19th centuries, both Wesleyan and Primitive. (This is not exhaustive, but shows information at the time of drawing.) Some of the places were cottages or farmhouses, and not the final location of a chapel. The diagram includes a reference to a Preaching Plan of 1798.
It is easier to describe the origins of the Wetton and Longnor Circuit by reference to the “family tree,” which shows the sequence by which the north of England was divided into Circuits of smaller areas as the number of Methodists grew. This had the advantages of both reducing the time spent in traveling, and ensuring that the work load of the Travelling Preachers was manageable.
In 1870, the Wesleyan Leek Circuit was divided to form the Wetton and Longnor Circuit. A new Manse was built at Wetton to house the Minister. The Methodist Union of 1932 brought new Chapels from the Primitive Methodists. In some cases, such as at Warslow, this meant having two buildings in the same road a couple of hundred yards apart. The P.M. building was the more suitable, so the Wesleyan building was eventually sold.
In 1962, for example, there were 10 Societies in the Circuit. These were Wetton, Alstonefield, Hartington. Butterton, Warslow, Longnor, Rewlach, Sheen, Newtown, and Hollinsclough. Rewlach, for example, was a chapel in a remote location associated with one farmhouse and little else. Yet even in the 1990s, not long before closure, it still attracted enough people to fill the building for harvest festival. The only chapel still open as a place of worship is Hollinsclough, which celebrated its 200th anniversary at Easter 2001.
Modern population trends, and economic pressures, led to the end of Wetton and Longnor as a separate Circuit. In 1969, it ceased and the various chapels were allocated to neighbouring Circuits of Leek, Ashbourne and Buxton. It is not only Methodist Chapels that have closed. Many village schools have also closed during the same time.
- The Methodist Church of Great Britain web site, Structures page.
- W. J. Townsend, H. B. Workman and G. Eayrs, A New History of Methodism, (1910), Vol. 1, Ch. VI p. 298-9
- Rev. Philip S. Watson, "Anatomy of a Conversion", ch. 2, p. 25. ISBN 0-310-74991-3
- Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit., Ch. VI
- Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 299
- Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 281
- Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 285
- Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 287-8, quoting Wesley's own words.
- Watson, op. cit. pp43-46 has a summary of the nature and purpose of Class Meetings.
- Holliday Bickerstaffe Kendall, History of the Primitive Methodist Church, 1919, p. 177
- Dyson, Wesleyan Methodism in the Leek Circuit, 1853, Rewlach books archive
- Hollinsclough Anniversary photos