Governance of the Methodist Church of Great Britain

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Some large churches, such as Methodist Central Hall (pictured), are standalone Circuits.

Governance of the Methodist Church of Great Britain is based on the principle of connexionalism—a highly centralised structure. From its inception under John Wesley, Methodism has always laid strong emphasis on the interdependence and mutual support, in terms of ministry, mission and finance, of one local congregation for another. The Church community has never been seen in isolation either from its immediately neighbouring Church communities or from the centralised national organisation. Wesley himself journeyed around the country, preaching, evangelizing and establishing local worshipping communities, often under lay leadership. Soon these local communities of worshipping Christians formalised their relationships with neighbouring Methodist communities to create Circuits, and the Circuits and Churches contained within them, were from the very beginning 'connected' (hence the peculiarly Methodist concept of the 'Connexion') to the centre and Methodism's governing body, the annual Conference.

A Circuit is a group of Local Churches under the care of one or more ministers. 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 Local Churches. Preaching appointments for both ministers and (lay) Local Preachers are organised by the Circuit and advertised on a "Preaching Plan" issued every three months by the leader of the Circuit, the Superintendent Minister. Upwards, Circuits are grouped into geographical Districts, headed a District Chair. Through the work of its annual conference and working parties the Methodist Church is also exploring the value of an organisational and operational tier 'larger than circuit' in sustaining its mission.[1]

Methodist Churches which were established by British Missionaries are also modelled on the structure of the British Church.

Historical origins[edit]

Diagram illustrating the area covered by early Methodist Circuits in 1746. Information is not available for East Anglia, nor for the exact boundaries.

The first Circuits, 1746[edit]

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.[2]

  1. London (including Surrey, Kent, Essex, Brentford, Egham, Windsor, Wycombe);
  2. Bristol (including Somerset, Portland, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucester);
  3. Cornwall
  4. Evesham (including Shrewsbury, Leominster, Hereford, and from Stroud to Wednesbury);
  5. Yorkshire (including Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Lincolnshire);
  6. Newcastle
  7. Wales

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.[3] The earliest Circuits covered a very large area, but gradually shrank as the number of societies increased.

Milestones in Wesley's early Methodism[edit]

The first Wesleyan Methodist society was formed in 1738, the first Methodist building was The Foundery acquired in 1739, and the first Class meetings were in 1742.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

The beginnings of Class Meetings[edit]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.

Methodist structures[edit]

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.


The Methodist Church defines the nature and purpose of the District as being:

to advance the mission of the Church in a region, by providing opportunities for Circuits to work together and support each other, by offering them resources of finance, personnel and expertise, which may not be available locally and by enabling them to engage with the wider society of the region as a whole and address its concerns. The District serves the Local Churches and Circuits and the Conference in the support, deployment and oversight of the various ministries of the Church, and in programmes of training. It has responsibility for the evaluation of applications by Local Churches and Circuits for approval of or consent to their proposals, when required, or for assistance from district or connexional bodies or funds. Wherever possible the work of the District is carried out ecumenically. The District is thus an expression, over a wider geographical area than the Circuit, of the connexional character of the Church.[9]

Typically from one to 3 counties in extent, grouping together from 10 to 50 Circuits, there are thirty-one Districts in Great Britain. There are about 630 Circuits, averaging about 20 churches in each. The Districts are as follows:

On 1 August 2017, the four former Districts in Yorkshire were reduced to three: Yorkshire North and East, Yorkshire West and Sheffield.[40]

The Gibraltar Circuit became part of the then London South West District in 1997 [41] and is now a circuit in the South East District.[42] The Methodist/Church of Scotland ecumenical partnership in Malta is also part of the South East District.[43]


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.

Society/Local Church[edit]

The local Church in modern Methodism, originally the group of people who met for Methodist fellowship.


A group of Methodists, normally about 12, under the guidance of a Class Leader.[44]


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 and Vice-President of Conference[edit]

The President of Conference is a Presbyter, with the Vice-President being a layperson or Deacon. The one exception was layman William Hartley, elected President of the Primitive Methodist Conference in 1909.[45]

Nominations are invited each year for President and Vice-President. Each is voted upon and designated a year ahead. Each nomination needs to be signed by five ministerial and five lay members of the Representative Session of the Conference. Nominations are collected during the first three days of that Session and displayed for 24 hours before a vote is taken. Voting is by single transferable vote. Voters do not chose one name only but mark all the names in order of preference. In this way if their first choice is not elected, they may influence the voting for an alternative.

The Conference resolves at the beginning of the Representative Session that the President designated the previous year be elected and similarly for the Vice-President-Designate. Each holds office for one year.

Chair of the District[edit]

A 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[edit]

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.

Local Preachers[edit]

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.

Circuit Officers[edit]

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.

Church Officers[edit]

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.

Other countries[edit]

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[edit]

The place of the Circuit in Methodism can be understood from a specific example, the Wetton and Longnor Methodist Circuit providing an example from rural Methodism.

Diagrammatic map of Methodist Chapels around Leek with first known building dates.

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.[46]

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.[47]

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.

Family tree diagram showing the origins of the Wetton and Longnor Methodist Circuit

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Larger than Circuit, Methodist Church Conference 2016
  2. ^ W. J. Townsend, H. B. Workman and G. Eayrs, A New History of Methodism, (1910), Vol. 1, Ch. VI p. 298-9
  3. ^ Rev. Philip S. Watson, "Anatomy of a Conversion", ch. 2, p. 25. ISBN 0-310-74991-3
  4. ^ Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit., Ch. VI
  5. ^ Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 299
  6. ^ Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 281
  7. ^ Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 285
  8. ^ Townsend, Workman and Eayrs, op. cit. p. 287-8, quoting Wesley's own words.
  9. ^ Methodist Church, The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, 2016, Standing Order 400A
  10. ^ Welcome to the BEH District of The Methodist Church
  11. ^ Birmingham District
  12. ^ Bolton and Rochdale District
  13. ^ Bristol District
  14. ^ Cumbria Methodist District
  15. ^ The Methodist Church Chester & Stoke-on-Trent District/
  16. ^ Cornwall Methodist District
  17. ^ Darlington Methodist District
  18. ^ East Anglia District
  19. ^ The Methodist Church in the Isle of Man
  20. ^ Lancashire Methodist District
  21. ^ Leeds District of the Methodist Church
  22. ^ Lincolnshire Methodist District
  23. ^ Liverpool Methodist District
  24. ^ London District of the Methodist Church
  25. ^ Manchester and Stockport Methodist District
  26. ^ Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District
  27. ^ Nottingham and Derby District of the Methodist Church
  28. ^ Northampton Methodist District
  29. ^ Plymouth and Exeter Methodist District
  30. ^ Sheffield Methodist District
  31. ^ Methodist South East District
  32. ^ Southampton District Methodist Church
  33. ^ West Yorkshire District of the Methodist Church
  34. ^ The Methodist Church - Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury District
  35. ^ York and Hull Methodist District
  36. ^ The Methodist Church in Scotland
  37. ^ Methodist Church in Shetland
  38. ^ The Methodist Church in Wales
  39. ^ Yr Eglwys Fethodistaidd yng Nghymru
  40. ^ Methodist Council, 17-18 October 2016, Reshaping Yorkshire Districts, accessed 3 February 2017
  41. ^ Gibraltar Methodist Church: History, accessed 6 May 2017
  42. ^ Methodist Church, The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, 2016, SO 38
  43. ^ Methodist Church South-East District, District Development Plan 2016-2020, accessed 6 May 2017
  44. ^ Watson, op. cit. pp43-46 has a summary of the nature and purpose of Class Meetings
  45. ^ Holliday Bickerstaffe Kendall, History of the Primitive Methodist Church, 1919, p. 177
  46. ^ Dyson, Wesleyan Methodism in the Leek Circuit, 1853, Rewlach books archive
  47. ^ Hollinsclough Anniversary photos

External links[edit]