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Women

Women have played an undeniably important, but not undisputed, role in Methodism ever since the days of John Wesley. The organization of the early societies gave women ample opportunity to exercise their gifts as class leaders, teachers, carers and housekeepers. Though he placed restrictions on their preaching, Wesley recognized that some women had an 'extraordinary' ministry and permitted them to give brief addresses at what were to be called prayer meetings rather than preaching services. The cost of being the wife of one of the early itinerant preachers is spelled out by Janet Kelly (2013).

After Wesley's death the Conference of 1803 pronounced 'preaching by women both unnecessary and generally undesired' and ordered women preachers to address only those of their own sex. But this did not deter some 25 women already preaching publicly from continuing to do so, notably Mary Fletcher and Mary Taft who corresponded extensively with one another. Despite considerable opposition, a number of new women preachers emerged in WM during the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the PM and the BC connexions, some women were accepted as full-time preachers and pastors, though discrimination in other respects continued. At the time of the Union of 1907, only one 'Female Preacher', Lillie Edwards at Hastings, was listed in the BC stations. Her disappearance from the stations of the UM Church in 1908 probably reflects the fact that the MNC and UMFC had never approved of women ministers.

Women were not admitted to the WM Conference until late in the 19th century. The first was Catherina Dawson, in 1894.

Shortly before the Union of 1932, a joint committee was set up to discuss the ordination of women. It reported to the Conference of 1933 that it could find no reason for disqualifying women from the same ministry as men. But the Conference of 1934 rejected a scheme for the ordination of women. New proposals, brought to the Conference of 1938, were approved, but then delayed by the outbreak of war. The Conference of 1945 again declared its willingness to ordain women and referred the matter to the Synods. But the Conference of 1948 declined to admit women to the ministry.

The question was reopened in 1959, when a committee was appointed to consider the status of deaconesses and the admission of women to the ministry. It reported inconclusively to five successive Conferences. In 1965 its recommendation raising the status of deaconesses was accepted, but Conference resolved that, whilst accepting in principle the ordination of women, it would not take unilateral action during the Anglican-Methodist negotiations. When these failed, Conference finally accepted the admission of women to the ministry and the first British Methodist ordinations took place in 1974. (The Rev. Peggy Hiscock had already been ordained in the United Church of Zambia in 1968.)

The first woman to become President of the Conference was Dr K.M. Richardson in 1992. Meanwhile the role of lay women had been recognized in the election of Mrs Mildred Lewis as the first woman Vice-President in 1948, followed by an increasing number of others since. In 2001 both the Presidency and Vice-Presidency were held by women for the first time (Dr. Christina Le Moignan and Mrs.Ann Leck). The wardenship of the Deaconess Order remained ministerial and male until the appointment of Sister Sheila Parnell as 'Deaconess Warden' in 1980. It is now generally accepted that all committees of the Methodist Church include women and all offices in the Church are open to women as well as men. A leading figure in this development was Pauline M. Webb, who held various connexional and ecumenical offices, though she herself was never ordained.

A further transformation in the women’s movements of the Methodist Church in Britain took place on 1st July 2011, when Women’s Network and the British Unit of the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women (WFMUCW) joined together as part of Methodist Women in Britain (MWiB), a new movement aiming to develop the work of training pioneered by Women’s Fellowship, along with the World Church emphasis of Women’s Work, both of which had been continued through Women’s Network with its motto of “encouraging, enabling and equipping” women. MWiB is committed to finding new ways to engage with women throughout British Methodism and ecumenical churches as well as linking them with women around the world. MWiB operates through a brand new website (www.mwib.org.uk), regular newsletters, regional, national and international conferences and training events. It is run by a small executive of volunteers and a larger Forum, on which each district is represented, along with other areas of women’s activity in the church. Creative spirituality along with a passion for social justice in a global context shape the activities and emphases of the movement.

Quotations

Leslie F. Church:

'Whilst it is evident that only an "extraordinary call" [to preach] was officially recognized in the case of a woman it is impossible to define the precise difference between this and the "ordinary call" to preach which was, apparently, sufficient ground for granting authority to men. Between the time of the death of Wesley in 1791 and the Conference of 1835, there was an appreciable number of women who served the Kingdom of God nobly, as local preachers in the Methodist Society. Their precise status matters little, when one remembrs their valient srvice. Some few travelled far and wide over the countryside. Others served within the boundaries of their own circuits, but to leave them out of account would be to censor an important chapter in the history of the Methodist Church.'

More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp.172-3


E. Benson Perkins, President of the 1948 Conference:

'The major debate that year was on "women in the ministry". It ran through the whole of one morning and, regarded purely as a discussion of an important issue, it was first-class, showing the Conference at its best. There were seventeen participants in the debate and the speaking on both sides was excellent. To me it is an extraordinary fact that in the fifteen Conferences since, we have not had another debate of that order and excellence... The resolution asked for the admission of women to the itinerant ministry on exactly the same terms as men. I am satisfied in my own mind that if the proposal had sought the ordination of selected women to meet special needs at home and overseas, it would probably have been carried. There was little objection on principle, and a beginning in the way suggested could have led to the solving of the serious practical difficulties. It was these difficulties in the main which led to the rejection of the proposal by a majority of approximately two thirds.'

So Appointed: an autobiography(1964) p.131

Sources

  • Methodist Recorder, Winter Number,1895 pp.65-9
  • Wesley F. Swift, 'The Women Itinerant Preachers of Early Methodism', in WHS Proceedings, 28 pp.89-94; 29 pp.76-83
  • C. Ryder Smith, 'The Admission of Women to the Christian Ministry', in London Quarterly Review, July 1927 pp.22-33
  • Leslie F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp. 136-76
  • W.F. Lofthouse, 'Wesley and his Women Correspondents', in Wesley's Chapel Magazine, January 1959 pp.2-8, April 1959 pp.6-12
  • T.M. Morrow, Early Methodist Women (1967)
  • Maldwyn L. Edwards, My Dear Sister: the story of John Wesley and the Women in his Life (Manchester, c.1980)
  • A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol.4 (1988), pp.597-9
  • David J. Boulton, 'Women and Early Methodism', in WHS Proceedings, 43 pp.13-17
  • Earl Kent Brown, Women of Mr. Wesley's Methodism (New York, 1983)
  • G. Thompson Brake, Policy and Politics in British Methodism 1932-1982 (1984) pp.314-28
  • R.E. Davies, 'The Ordination of Women in Methodism', in WHS Proceedings, 48 pp.105-12
  • Deborah M. Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: female preaching and popular religion in industrial England (Princeton, 1985)
  • D. Shorney, 'Women may preach, but men must govern': Gender roles in … the Bible Christian denomination', in R.N. Swanson (ed.), Gender and Christian Religion (Woodbridge, 1988) pp.309-22
  • John A. Newton, 'Wesley and Women', in John Stacey (ed.), John Wesley: Contemporary Perspectives (1988) pp.129-37
  • A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol. 4, 'Documents and Source Material' (1988) pp.168-72, 361-2
  • Elaine J. Lawless, 'The silencing of the preacher woman: the muted message of George Eliot's Adam Bede', in Women's Studies, vol.18 (1990-91) pp.249-68
  • J. Field-Bibb, Women into Priesthood (1991)
  • Paul W. Chilcote, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism (Metuchen, NJ, 1991)
  • John C. English, '"Dear Sister": John Wesley and the Women of Early Methodism' in Methodist History, 33:1 (October 1994) pp.26-33
  • E. Dorothy Graham, 'Chosen by God: the Female Travelling Preachers of Early Primitive Methodism', in WHS Proceedings, 49 pp.77-95
  • Janet Burge, 'Impudent Women: the women preachers of early Methodism', in Epworth Review, 21:2, May 1994, pp.93-102
  • E. Dorothy Graham, 'Women Local Preachers', in G.E. Milburn and Margaret Batty, Workaday Preachers (Peterbrough, 1995) pp.165-90
  • Gareth Lloyd, Sources for Women's Studies in the Methodist Archives (Manchester, 1996)
  • John H. Lenton, '"Labouring for the Lord": women preachers in Wesleyan Methodism, 1802-1932 - a revisionist view', in Richard Sykes (ed.), Beyond the Boundaries: preaching in the Wesleyan tradition (Oxford, 1998) pp.58-86
  • Christopher Oldstone-Moore, Hugh Price Hughes (1999), pp.291-3
  • Cora Krommenhoek, 'Freedom or servitude? Methodist women and the doctrine of sanctification', in Canadian Methodist Historical Society Papers, vol.12 (1999) pp.57-69
  • Linda Wilson, 'Conversion among female Methodists 1825-75', in WHS Proceedings, 51 pp.217-25
  • Linda Wilson, Constrained by Zeal: Female Spirituality among Nonconformists (2000)
  • Gareth Lloyd, 'Repression and Resistance: Wesleyan Female Public Ministry in the Generation after 1791', in WHS Proceedings, 54 pp.101-14
  • Jennifer M. Lloyd, 'Women Preachers in the Bible Chritian Connexion', in Albion, 36:3 (Fall, 2004) pp.451-81
  • Norma Virgoe (ed.), Angels and Impudent Women: Women in Methodism (2007)
  • Amanda Stevens, Cornish Women Preachers, 1750-1850: Just 'novelty value'? (CMHA, Truro, 2007)
  • 'Women in Love: Eros and Piety in the minds of Methodist Women', in Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (2008) pp.127-170
  • Jane Craske, 'Methodism and Feminism', in Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies ed. W.J. Abraham and J.E. Kirby (2009), pp.662-79
  • Jennifer M. Lloyd, Women and the Shaping of British Methodism: persistent preachers, 1807-1907 (Manchester, 2009)
  • Margaret Jones, 'Grand-daughters to Susanna', in Methodist Recorder, 28 June 2013
  • Janet Kelly, 'Memorials of Motherhood: the Travels and Travails of Preachers' Wives', in David J. Hart and David J. Jeremy (eds.), Brands Plucked from the Burning: Essays on Methodist Memorialisation and Remembering (2013) pp.219-37
  • Margaret P. Jones, 'Grand-daughters to Susanna: Wesleyan Women's Discipleship, 1800-1860', in WHS Proceedings, 59 Part 6, October 2014, pp.201-213

Entry written by: PMW
Category: Subject

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