by Gill Dascombe.
As a local preacher, I was initially dismayed when the Methodist Conference of 2022 voted to revoke the Standing Order, in place since Methodist Union in 1932, that requires that candidates for the presbyteral ministry should first be fully accredited local preachers.1
This seemed to me to represent the end, or the beginning of the end, of the symbiotic relationship between lay and ordained ministries, which is so characteristic of Methodism, by diminishing and dismissing the lay calling in favour of promoting and facilitating access to its more celebrated ordained counterpart.
Preaching is integral to Methodism, which actually began as a movement of lay preachers within the Church of England. John Wesley, though at first hesitant about their non-ordained status, nevertheless eventually admitted that ‘I do tolerate lay preaching, because I conceive that there is an absolute necessity for it; inasmuch as, were it not, thousands of souls would perish everlastingly.’ 2
From the earliest days Mr Wesley’s preachers fell into two related categories: ‘exhorters’, who preached in their own locality, supporting themselves by their daily occupation, and itinerant preachers, who were identified from amongst the body of exhorters, and employed and paid by Wesley.3 Over the course of time itinerant preachers became presbyters and exhorters became local preachers.
The 2022 decision will no doubt have a long-term effect on the nature of ordained ministry in Methodism, but what will be the effect on the ministry of local preachers? On reflection, I came to the realisation that it could in fact be a new and potentially exciting opportunity; local preaching, freed from being but a steppingstone to greater things, could now develop and grow as a vocation in its own right.
It was a couple of phrases in the Conference report which sparked off this train of thought: ‘…the preaching of a presbyter is not the same as that of a local preacher. The presbyter …..preaches from a different place.’’4
The corollary of this, of course, is that the preaching of a local preacher is not the same as that of a presbyter, and that it too comes from its own distinctive place.
I was recently at a training event for new circuit stewards. In our buzz groups we were invited to discuss with each other what it was that we most valued about being Methodists. My group was in unison: it was local preachers, for the breadth, accessibility and variety of their preaching, and the way they weave together circuit relationships via their appointments on the plan.
Local preachers occupy a large proportion Methodist pulpits every Sunday.5 Thus they represent the public face of the church to many congregations. Unlike their ordained colleagues, they are not ’set apart’, and stationed to a circuit appointment, but ‘set within’ their home faith communities, serving sometimes for several decades in the same circuit. This can and does result in the establishing and maintaining of long-lasting relationships between preachers and the people they serve.
Like the worshippers sitting before them local preachers are, and have always been, a very diverse body, drawn from a wide range of educational, occupational and social backgrounds; the first women were admitted as preachers as early as the 1780’s,6 and there is no official retirement age! Their preaching establishes the link between theology and everyday life by testifying to the gospel as it is experienced in the factory, kitchen, laboratory, supermarket, university, nursery, boardroom and bus stop (and so on), and bears witness to the important fact that the Kingdom of God extends far beyond the confines of the institutional Church.
These things form the ‘place’4 from which the ministry of local preaching comes. The pastoral and missional possibilities are many and obvious…..
John Wesley conceded that lay preachers were essential to the spiritual wellbeing of the people of his time and place. Let us do the same for ours.
- Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
- The Letters of John Wesley, Epworth Press 1931, p186
- Batty, M., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p14
- Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
- Ministry in the Methodist Church, Methodist Conference 2020, Report 33, 7.3.1
- Graham, E., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p165