The United Methodist Church is the largest denomination within the wider Methodist movement, which has approximately 80 million adherents across the world. In the United States, the UMC ranks as the largest mainline denomination, the second largest Protestant church after the Southern Baptist Convention, and the third largest Christian denomination. As of 2009, worldwide membership was about 12 million: 7.7 million in the United States, and 4.4 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. It is a member of the World Council of Churches, the World Methodist Council, and other religious associations.
Episcopal polity is the predominant pattern in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Anglican churches. It is also common in some Methodist and Lutheran churches, as well as amongst some of the African American Pentecostal traditions in the United States.
Connexional PolityMany Methodist churches use a derivative of episcopal polity known as Connexionalism, or Connexional polity, which combines a loose episcopal hierarchy with a bottom-up structure, centered around small groups of congregations called circuits.
Congregationalist polity dispenses with titled positions such as bishop as a requirement of church structure. The local congregation rules itself, though local leaders and councils may be appointed.
Members may be sent from the congregation to associations that are sometimes identified with the church bodies formed by Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and other non-congregational Protestants. The similarity is deceptive, however, because the congregationalist associations do not exercise control over their members (other than ending their membership in the association). Many congregationalist churches are completely independent in principle. One major exception is Ordination, where even congregationalist churches often invite members of the vicinage or association to ordain their called pastor.
It is a principle of congregationalism that ministers do not govern congregations by themselves. They may preside over the congregation, but it is the congregation which exerts its authority in the end.
Churches that traditionally practice congregational polity include congregationalists, Baptists, and many forms of nondenominational Christianity. Because of its prevalence among Baptists, and the prominence of Baptists among Protestant denominations, congregational polity is sometimes called "Baptist polity."
Polity, autonomy, and ecumenism
Although a church's polity dictates how it is governed and how its ministers figure in that governance, it need not have any implications on relationships between church bodies. The unity of the church is a doctrine central to ecclesiology, but since the divisions between churches presuppose a lack of mutual authority, the internal polity does not directly provide answers on how these divisions have been handled.
Ecumenism is the movement within Christianity that aims at "the recovery in thought, in action, and in organization, of the true unity between the Church's mission to the world (its apostolate) and the Church's obligation to be one". Thus, ecumenism is the promotion of unity or cooperation between distinct religious groups or denominations of Christianity.
Ecumenism is distinguished from and should not be misused to mean interfaith pluralism. The interfaith movement strives for greater mutual respect, toleration, and co-operation among the world religions. Interfaith dialogue between representatives of diverse faiths, does not necessarily intend reconciling their adherents into full, organic unity with one another but simply to promote better relations.
Plurality and singularity
Plurality refers to systems of ecclesiastical polity wherein the local church's decisions are made by a committee, typically called elders. The system is in contrast to the "singularity" of episcopal polity systems as used in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches, or the pastor/president system of many Protestant churches.
Plurality of elders is commonly encouraged, with variation of practice, among Presbyterians, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Pentecostal churches, and Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Plymouth Brethren (who employ congregational polity). The practice is drawn from Biblical precedent, acknowledging that churches in the time of the New Testament appear to all have had multiple elders