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The role of women within Methodism

The historical background

Methodism originated in the 1730s as part of the great evangelical revival which changed the face of popular religion in Britain and North America. Its first leaders were the Anglican clergymen John and Charles Wesley, assisted by itinerant preachers. With the separation of Methodism from the Church of England by 1800, the itinerant preachers were ordained as ministers and were assisted by local preachers recruited from the laity. Since 1744 the policy-making body of Methodism has been the annual Conference. The early Conferences consisted of itinerant preachers, to which were added lay representatives in the nineteenth century.

In common with most denominations, the status of Methodist women was, until recently, subordinate to that of men. From the earliest years, however, women have performed or shared in several important functions relating to worship and other areas of Church life.

From as early as 1742 female class leaders were appointed at the Foundery Chapel in London. Both sexes were encouraged to speak of their spiritual life in public, worship, and exhort fellow Methodists to faith and repentance. Some women, like Ann Cutler (1759-94) and Hester Ann Roe-Rogers (1756-94), enjoyed such a reputation for holiness that their lives were made the subject of devotional works. Other areas of early Methodist life in which women played a leading role included education (with particular regard to the Sunday School movement), and visiting the sick. The wives of itinerant preachers were also held in high regard and by the end of the eighteenth century were considered to have a vital supporting role in their husbands' ministries.

One of the most important and controversial developments in early - Methodism was the decision to allow female preaching. By the 1760s, Sarah Crosby (1729-1804) and Mary Bosanquet-Fletcher (1739-1815) had, with John Wesley's reluctant approval, made the transition from `exhorting' to preaching the gospel. It is not known how many women preachers there were in eighteenth-century Methodism but contemporary sources indicate that their number was not insignificant. It was an example that the Church of England was not to follow until after the Second World War.

After John Wesley's death in 1791, the attitude of the Wesleyan Methodists towards the concept of a female preaching ministry changed from reluctant acceptance to positive discouragement. From 1803, women were effectively restricted to addressing their own sex and then only under strict conditions. Inevitably, some women ignored the obstacles placed in their way and continued to preach wherever they saw a need. The most famous was Mary Barritt-Taft (1772-1851), who was responsible for the conversion of a number of later well-known Wesleyan ministers.

[Miss Kate Savin]

Miss Kate Savin, Bible Christian Missionary in China c.1896-1919

In the first half of the nineteenth century Methodism split into several bodies and it was the breakaway churches which made the most use of their female membership. The Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians (established in 1811 and 1815 respectively) in particular made extensive use of the novelty value of female evangelists in expanding into new areas. Even after the practice of employing female itinerants in the non-Wesleyan churches died out in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, women continued to act as local preachers in all the major Methodist denominations and in overseas missions. The status of women began to improve towards the end of the nineteenth century. In 1890 the Wesley Deaconess Order was established to fill the need for outreach among the female poor and was used extensively in the large inner-city missions. Deaconesses were also employed in overseas work from 1894. The Primitive Methodist and United Methodist Free Churches established similar orders by the end of the century.

In 1910, the Wesleyans officially lifted the ban on women preaching to mixed congregations and in 1918 officially granted them the same rights and conditions as male local preachers.

The move towards sexual equality within the Church gathered pace after the union of the major denominations in 1932 to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain. The Women's Fellowship was established in 1944 as part of the Home Mission department to consider problems vital to women. The Fellowship has been particularly active in social issues.

The first women to be accepted into the full ministry of the Church were ordained at the Bristol Conference in 1974. Another major landmark in achieving equality was reached in 1993 when Kathleen Richardson, who had already achieved the distinction of being the first female District Chairperson, was elected the first woman President of the Conference, thereby becoming the head of the Church during her year in office.