Whither Mr. Wesley’s Preachers?

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.

  1. Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
  2. The Letters of John Wesley, Epworth Press 1931, p186
  3. Batty, M., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p14
  4. Methodist Conference Agenda 2022, p178
  5. Ministry in the Methodist Church, Methodist Conference 2020, Report 33, 7.3.1
  6. Graham, E., in Workaday Preachers: the Story of Methodist Local Preaching, Methodist Publishing House, 1995, p165

4 thoughts on “Whither Mr. Wesley’s Preachers?”

  1. I felt just the same as Gill when I first heard about the report, I resisted the idea of dropping the LP requirement for ordination training when I was involved in this many years ago, but my views have altered. I have been particularly concerned about the length of time those training to become a LP have to study particularly if they sense a call to ordination. It can be as long as doing a Phd!
    And how I agree about the need for LPs to bring their life experience to preaching. One who influenced me greatly when young was not a ‘polished’ preacher, but he was a tough trades union negotiator who spoke of his fights for fairness and justice in the work place.


  2. Thanks Gill, I too have mixed feelings about the decision, but I am coming round to accepting it. I was disappointed at first, but as I spend longer hearing about and trying to support the work of Pioneer Ministers in Methodism and beyond, I can see the nature of Ministry evolving too. So apart from the length of training time involved, and the prospect of the study course putting people off, I can also see whilst a preaching ministry is still very important, we do need to evolve the gateway to presbyteral ministry too.
    As a local preacher for over 30 years who has recently semi-retired from my day job in the NHS ,I am off to consider how my role may grow as a vocation in its own right in the next few years.


  3. As one of Mr Wesley’s preachers I am still very unsure what I think of the conference decision. However, whilst in practice the decision may indeed 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 is not in reality at all new. Local preaching has never been “a steppingstone” let alone “to greater things”. A few candidates for ministry as Presbyters may have seen it in that light, but that is not what it is and so does not to be freed from being that. It is not what it is even for those who happened to go on to be Presbyters.

    It has always had a vocation of its own. The distinctive emphases of ‘Local Preachers’ and ‘Itinerant Preachers’ are important, but is it really just two types of ministry. What about Deacons who are accredited Preachers? Where do they fit in this two tone model? The pastoral as well as the sacramental role is hugely significant in how Preachers are perceived. Some Local Preachers (not just Deacons) have significant pastoral roles in one or more Church and their Preaching may be perceived as more like that of a Presbyter. Some Local Preachers have more interest and competence (sorry they are not really the right words) in theology than some Presbyters. Although we (lay and ordained) are still referred to as Preachers there has been a big change of emphasis concerning leading worship more broadly than just Preaching.

    I had the great privilege a number of years ago of Preaching at the Celebration of One Hundred Years of accredited Preaching for my parents (fifty years each). At the time of the Celebration they were both Presbyters, but it was from their accreditation, not their ordinations, that we celebrated. (A few years later we had a celebration for fifty and twenty-five years since ordination). My Father in particular described himself as ‘Preacher’. He was greatly concerned about matters sacramental and took very seriously his ordination ‘setting aside’; he considered his pastoral and leadership roles as important too. But when he came towards the end of his life and wrote a poem about coming to the end of his life/ministry he wrote, “Where lies he now, Of late the Preacher, …”


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