John Wesley's views on marriage were set out in Thoughts on Marriage and a Single Life (1743) and Thoughts on a Single Life (1765). He continued to encourage his preachers to remain celibate in spite (or because?) of his own unfortunate experience of marriage.
The Conference Declaration on The Christian View of Marriage and the Family (1939) states that from the time of Jesus the life-long union of one man with one woman has been the norm and standard of Christian marriage, which is intended to serve the dual purpose of fellowship and parenthood. More recent reports include: 'A Christian Understanding of Human Sexuality' (Conference Agenda, 1979; also 1980 pp.111-42; 1982 pp.45-67) and 'A Christian Understanding of Family Life, the Single Person and Marriage' (Agenda, 1989). (For later developments, see below.)
Methodism stresses the importance of sex education, preparation for marriage and chastity before marriage. The principle of family planning is commended and the use of contraception approved. Abortion as a means of family limitation is condemned, but the Methodist Church has assented to the provisions of the law which allows abortion in carefully defined situations, especially where the life of the mother is in jeopardy.
The Church recognizes the fact of marriage breakdown and judges that divorce should be granted only when the breakdown is irretrievable. The remarriage of divorced people in church is permitted in certain cases, after careful consideration of all the circumstances. Initially this required the approval of the District Chair. In 1998 the Conference adopted a report on ‘Christian Preparation for Marriage’’; the current Policy and Guidelines based upon that report are published in the ‘Guidance’ section of The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church.
The Conference held a major debate upon human sexuality in 1993, and as a result adopted six resolutions (printed in annual editions of CPD). These include the declaration that no person should be debarred from the Church on grounds of sexual orientation in itself (resolution 3), the reaffirmation of the traditional teaching of the Church, namely chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it (resolution 4), and (resolution 6) a resolution inter alia recognising, celebrating and affirming the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the Church and calling on the Methodist people to begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination. The Conference of later years returned to these matters (see in particular the reports of the working party on the Pilgrimage of Faith (2005 and 2006) and the report in 2008 on whether to review the 1993 resolutions) but agreed that it was not yet time to review the resolutions.
In 2014 a Working Party on Marriage and Civil Partnerships reported to the Conference (Agenda pp 421-492), having been set up the previous year to consider the implications for the Methodist Church of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Upon its recommendation, the Conference did not at that stage ‘opt in’ to the 2013 Act, so no local church may apply for registration for same sex marriages to be conducted on their premises. The Conference in 2014 did approve amended guidelines for responding to requests by same sex couples for prayers or services (printed in CPD). It also extended the ruling made in 2006 as to civil partnerships, that there is no reason per se to prevent anyone within the Church from entering into a legally contracted same sex marriage, whilst recognising that the 1993 Resolutions would still apply to such relationships.
The Conference of 2014 adopted the recommendation to set up a further wide-ranging task group on marriage and relationships in general, and the implications arising from the divergence between the Methodist Church’s teaching on marriage and the legal definition and concept of marriage now applying in England, Wales and Scotland.. That group reported in 2016 (Agenda pp 258-303). In response to its report, the Conference adopted resolutions on a number of topics (Daily Record 6/8), and directed that that a new Statement of the judgment of the Conference on marriage and relationships was to be prepared and that, as part of the process, the definition of marriage should be revisited. A new group was appointed to work on this, and brought an interim report to the Conference of 2018 (Agenda pp 337-347, Daily Record 7/17/1).