John Wesley was persuaded in 1746 by Lord Peter King's argument that bishops and presbyters belong to a single order and conducted his ordinations in 1784 and thereafter on that basis, but vehemently opposed the use of the title 'bishop'. The Methodists in America nevertheless adopted it in 1787, having styled themselves 'The Methodist Episcopal Church' at the Christmas Conference of 1784. The United Methodist Church and other denominations that have developed from that beginning all have bishops but see episcopacy as a life-long office within the order of elders (presbyters), not as a separate order. In the latter part of the twentieth century other conferences in various countries have appointed bishops, as a more acceptable title than 'chairman' or to avoid the political associations of 'president', but a number, including Britain and Ireland, remain non-episcopal.

In Britain the 'Lichfield Plan' of 1794, which would in effect have created bishops, was rejected. In 1894 a proposal by J.H. Rigg, supported by H.P. Hughes, to create thirteen Wesleyan 'bishoprics' was rejected by the Conference. Since Methodist Union consideration has been given to adopting episcopacy either as an element in a scheme of church union or because of the lack of theological resonance in the title 'Chairman' or objection to its masculine connotations. In ecumenical discussions episcopacy is invariably linked to the historic episcopate (the traceable succession of bishops back to very early times, seen as a sign of the continuity of the church), and the British Conference authorised union schemes in South India (1947) and North India (1970) which included it. The two-stage scheme for union with the Church of England proposed in 1963 and the wider proposals for a Covenant of English Churches put forward in 1980 both included it, as have proposals for wider unions in Wales and Scotland. In every case the Conference approved the proposals, although none has come to fruition. The Conference has always insisted that apostolicity cannot be narrowly defined in terms of ministerial succession and that acceptance of the historic episcopate should not be taken to imply a denial of the grace of God operative in non-episcopal ministry.

The issue, periodically discussed since 1980, has come to the fore with the signing of the Covenant between the Methodist Church and the Church of England in 2003. Recent debate has focussed on four questions: (a) If British Methodism adopts episcopacy should it do so only in the context of a union scheme, or of its own initiative outside such a context because of episcopacy's intrinsic merits in stressing the personal dimension of oversight? (b) Should episcopacy involve the historic episcopate? (c) What current officers in the church (President, district chairs, superintendents?) should be made bishops? (d) What should be the relationship of the authority of bishops to the episcopé of the Conference? Although it was hoped to resolve these issues in 2007 a connexional survey in 2005-2007 revealed no clear consensus, and the Conference resolved to take no steps for the present. In 2008 the Joint Implementation Commission of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant recommended nevertheless that any eventual decision should be for a President-bishop, the number increasing with each annual election of President.

  • Statements and Reports on Faith and Order: vol.1 (2000) pp.143-184; vol.2 pp.370-429,
  • Conference Agenda: 1998 pp.67-79; 2000 pp.120-150,; 2002 pp.347-353; 2005 pp.552-583; 2007 pp.531-537
  • John Kent, Jabez Bunting, the Last Wesleyan (1955), pp.17-37
  • John Harrod, 'A Pig in a Poke - also known as a Methodist Bishop', in Epworth Review, April 2006 pp.45-53
  • Embracing the Covenant (2008) pp.84-114.
  • 'Methodist Episcopacy', in Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies ed. W.J. Abraham and J.E. Kirby (2009), pp.229-44
  • Brian E. Beck, 'Conference Episcope:History and theology', in Mervyn Davies (ed.), A Thankful Heart and a Discerning Mind (2010) pp.110-26