Methodist denominations are today represented by four major churches: the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The present paper describes and compares these four institutions.
Historically, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church is a denomination, composed of African Americans, who adopt and employ Methodism as their religious worship (Bucke, p.340). “The group was organized in 1870 when several black ministers, with the full support of their white counterparts in the former Methodist Episcopal Church, South, met to form an organization that would allow them to establish and maintain their own polity, that is, to ordain their own bishops and ministers without the necessity of them being officially endorsed or appointed by the white-dominated body” (Bucke, p. 342). Nowadays, the organization has its publishing house in Memphis, Tennessee.
According to internal documentation concerning leadership, bishops are elected as superintendents of the church and can perform their duties until the age of 74, importantly, there are no gender restriction for this position, so females are entitled to be elected. Bishops are supposed to appoint pastors (or local clergy), protect and preserve the beliefs of the church and perform ordinations (Heitzenrater, p. 348; Bucke, p. 343). The major characteristic of this denomination is the belief in the universal redemption, under which everyone can be saved, regardless of their ‘earthy’ activities.
Other prominent beliefs include: the importance of Christian perfection and spiritual development; the possibility or leaving this church (for another one, or rejecting christian beliefs completely); the priority of faith; the possibility of witnessing the Holy Spirit in this life and the importance of observing sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) (Heitzenrater, p. 351). The church has three branches of power – legislative (the General Conference), exeutive (Episcopacy) and judicial (the Judicial Council).
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was also intended as a religious organization for individuals of color and was established in 1821. The word ‘Zion’ refers to the Biblical teachings and means ‘Church’ (Heitzenrater, p. 398). “The society of this new denomination called itself the “Freedom Church” at the time, because the founders decided to dedicate it to the liberation of the human spirit. Spiritual, social and economic freedom were very important to the founders” (Wigger, p. 284).
The members of this church share almost the same beliefs as those who belong to the CME, but AME Zion seems to impose more obligations upon its participants, as its statute claims that individuals are basically miserable and therefore should dedicate themselves to serving God in order to receive the real blessing the achieve personal liberty. This denomination is extremely concerned about the religious affairs in African countries and therefore its missionaries regularly visit the corresponding countries. While the CME is administered by bishop, who has the full range of entitlements, the most critical decisions in the AME Zion are taken during the general conference, but the hierarchy and bureaucracy in this denomination are also uncomplicated and actually not exceedingly formalized (Bucke, p. 401).
The United Methodist Church is among the largest Protestant denominations (Wigger, p.225 ) , as it has accepted under its roof a number of minor organizations, which nowadays have very low level of autonomy and both officially and factually belong to the single church. “The United Methodist Church is organized into conferences” (Wigger, p.227). The General Conference is the most influential organization, entitled to express the opinion of the whole church and to approve decisions and projects.
The General Conference is gathered every four years, and each meeting results in the publication of the Book of Resolutions, or additional principles and plans to implement. Jurisdictional and Central Conferences are hierarchically lower and therefore accountable to the General Conference (Kimbrough, p. 118). The main objectives of the jurisdictional meetings (which also take place every four years) are electing bishops as well as chief administrators of the members units and planning basic activities for these executives.
The Annual Conference, accordingly, is aimed at appointing minor clearly like pastors and (re-)interpreting the Book of Discipline. “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 a superintendent they routinely return to serving local congregations” (Kimbrough, p. 119). Importantly, this denomination allows women to serve as bishops and in general observes the same Christian principles as the two above described organizations, based upon the individual salvation and outreach work with the disadvantaged. On the other hand, the UM is a bureaucratic and formalized organization, which has strict leadership structure and therefore might be at risk of the monopolization of the power by the single participant (Kimbrough, p. 124).
As for the clergy of the organization, they are divided into three ‘positions’: bishops, elders and deacons, the last group of religious workers are responsible for technical performance of liturgies and also might be employed as educators, musicians or business administrators, i.e. they can combine their participation in the UM with more secular activities.
Elders have the same responsibilities, but the main difference between these two classes of the clergy is the regulation of appointments: deacons have a chance to choose the locality where they wish to serve, whereas elders are assigned directly by the Annual Conference (Kimbrough, p. 130; McEllhenney, p. 429). According to another classification, local pastors are distinguished from the other three categories.
Local pastors, conversely to bishops, deacons and elders, are not required to have master’s degree in theology (divinity) or related sciences. In order to avoid the misuse of entitlements in local churches, the conferences can annually make new appointments for all local congregations, but the same deacons, elders and pastors serve at the certain local organization for years.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in the 1850s and has almost the same organization as the UM, so the primary decision-making body is the General Conference, during which bishops are elected. “The bishops are the chief Officers of the Connectional Organization. They are elected for life by a majority vote of the General conference which meets ever four years. Bishops are bound by the laws of the church to retire following their 75th birthday” (Heitzenrater, p. 473).
The Council of Bishops is also called the Executive Branch of the denomination, as it is responsible for applying the new statutes, adopted during the General Conference. The Board of Incorporators is the supervisory body that conducts analysis and partial control of the Council’s activities and determines whether they match to the overall religious course, established by the organization. The General Board is the administrative body, responsible for the distribution of material resources and financial affairs of the denomination, so it approves the decisions made by the Council of Bishops and provides the resources needed for applying new rules or principles, building new churches or colleges (this denomination has sixteen higher education institutions).
The Judicial Council is charged with resolving the conflicts within the denomination and also dealing with corresponding appellations (McEllhenney, p. 463). The major mission of the AME is supporting the nurturing physical and spiritual development of its congregations as well as the whole society in general. More specific objectives are as follows: “ 1) preaching the gospel; 2) feeding the hungry; 3) clothing the naked; 4) housing the homeless; 5) cheering the fallen; 6) providing jobs for the jobless; 7) administering of the needs of those in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes; 8) encouraging thrift and economic advancement” (McEllhenney, p. 658).
In conclusion, it is necessary to summarize the similarities and differences between the denominations. First of all, they have approximately similar beliefs and missions, which necessarily include brotherly aid for those in need and education for the youth: all churches have their own education institutions, which provide holistic training in various disciplines beyond theology. Furthermore, all these churches are concerned about the current political and social affairs and although they do not directly engage into non-religious movements, they always state and publicize their attitudes towards such issues as terrorism, the U.S. trade deficiency and ethnic segregation, moreover, actively help ethnic minorities.
As for a parishioner, all churches are comparatively ‘democratic’ in their beliefs and do not place too strict constraints upon the individual’s lifestyle (fasts etc) and skillfully use the principles of social work like the empowerment and reinforcement of community capacities. On the other hand, the united Methodist church and the African Methodist Church have more complicated hierarchical structure and therefore appear more ‘formal’ organizations and therefore have more prescriptions for deacons, elders and pastors, serving for local congregations.
All denominations avoid gender discrimination and view females as equal to males in terms of their entitlements. Finally, the CME and the AME Zion appear more sensitive to the recent changes in social life or recent crises, as their responses to the adversities bred by hurricane Katrina were the most rapid, even though these organizations are much smaller that the others.
1)Bucke, E. The History of American Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964.
2)Heitzenrater, R. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
3)Kimbrough, D. Reverend Joseph Tarkington, Methodist Circuit Rider. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
4)McEllhenney, J. United Methodism in America: A Compact History. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.
5)Wigger, J. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.