The Methodist Church began through the work of John Wesley (1703-1791) whose itinerant evangelistic work in the British Isles aroused an enthusiastic response among many, both within and outside the Church of England. His preaching emphasized salvation for all, the effect of faith on character, and the possibility of perfection in love during this life. He organized the new converts locally and in a "connexion" across the whole of Britain. He set standards for doctrines in his "Notes on the New Testament" and "44 Sermons", and enabled his people to sing their theology, mainly through the hymns of his brother Charles (1707-88). During the 19th century, the church experienced various divisions, but this was also the period of great missionary expansion throughout the world. The main streams of Methodism came together as "The Methodist Church" in 1932.
The Methodist Church is the fourth largest Christian church in Britain, after the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and the Church of Scotland and the largest of the so-called Free churches. There are Methodist churches in most cities and towns, and in many villages of England and Wales - fewer in Scotland - and so Methodism has a strong local presence. As a national body the church shares responsibility with other churches to bring Christian insights to the life of the nation at all levels. A connexional team both serves the church as a whole and represents it.
The Methodist Church is involved in nearly 900 local ecumenical partnerships in England (less in Scotland and Wales). In 2003 it entered into a covenant with the Church of England. In mutual affirmations each church is affirmed as a true Christian church, carrying out the work of God. In a number of commitments each church is pledged to work more closely with the other towards full unity. The Methodist Church is also committed to a shared pastoral strategy with the United Reformed Church. Those relationships are particular expressions of the Methodist Church's goal to work with a wide range of partners (the other denominations, Christian agencies, Methodist churches in other parts of the world and secular organizations) to pursue its mission. The Methodist Church summarizes its purpose in "Our Calling", adopted by the Methodist Conference, the governing body of the church, in the year 2000:
"The Church exists to:
- Increase awareness of God's presence and celebrate God's love [Worship];
- Help people to learn and grow as Christians, through mutual support and care [Learning and Caring];
- Be a good neighbour to people in need and to challenge injustice [Service];
- Make more followers of Jesus Christ [Evangelism]."
This was further developed in "Priorities for the Methodist Church", adopted in 2004:
"In partnership with others wherever possible, the Methodist Church will concentrate its prayers, resources, imagination and commitments on this priority:
- To proclaim and affirm its conviction of God's love in Christ, for us and for all the world; and renew confidence in God's presence and action in the world and in the Church;
As ways towards realizing this priority, the Methodist Church will give particular attention to the following:
- Underpinning everything we do with God-centred worship and prayer;
- Supporting community development and action for justice, especially among the most deprived and poor - in Britain and worldwide;
- Developing confidence in evangelism and in the capacity to speak of God and faith in ways that make sense to all involved;
- Encouraging fresh ways of being Church;
- Nurturing a culture in the Church which is people-centred and flexible."