Role of Women in the Methodist Church
John Wesley the man behind the start of the Methodist church was ordained a deacon in 1725. He used to be a member of a bible club nicknamed bible moths and the methodical life lived by the members led them to be called the Methodists the name of the religious movement that evolved from that club. As history has it, Wesley in 1738 after a period of spiritual crisis was renewed again in spirit and thus began his long career of preaching the good work of God. John Wesley always used the man of one book while referring to himself and his preaching and teaching practices were usually founded on the scriptures. In this regard, the scripture, experience, reason and tradition are sometimes referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral since they formed the basis for most of his teachings (Donna, 2001, 24).
In practice, he was always encouraging his followers to avail themselves in their local churches in order to receive the holy sacraments. In essence, the traditional services practiced by the Methodists were usually preaching services of free form. From the beginning of his religious services and as is common with many Methodists churches today, Wesley was deeply concerned with the poor and those that were seen as being socially marginalized at that time. Presently, the Methodist church carries on the social holiness a named coined by Wesley himself.
Most of the practices followed by the present Methodist church were first introduced by Wesley and this practice still forms strong foundations of today’s church. For example, he usually referred himself as a friend for all and an enemy of no one. Methodists today consider themselves a friend to all inclusive of all other religious movements. Wesley in leading the Methodism never fully recognized the role of women in the church but on the contrary gave them roles that were subordinate to those played by men. It was only until later that he started to give women leading roles previously seen as men’s roles (Greaves, 1998, 46).
When Methodism separated itself from the Church of England, Wesley as the leader of Methodism appointed to men to act as itinerant preachers to help him with the preaching work. The itinerant preachers on the others hand were to be assisted by local preachers who were themselves recruited from laity. During that time itinerant preachers constituted the annual which by then was the Methodism policy making body. Also inclusive in the annual conference were lay representatives who were usually men. It is important here to say that though Wesley seemed to be close to women a fact that was demonstrated by his closeness with his mother and the many letters that according to history he used to write to his female friends, he never fully advocated for female involvement in the church at least for the better part of nineteenth century. On the other hand, during this time, most of the church roles were dominated by men and the roles played by women were only subordinate to those played by men. Women were usually given small roles that were less influential as compared to the roles played by men ( Paul,1999, 56).
Beginning the year 1742, the Foundry chapel of Methodism allowed and appointed female class leaders and encouraged both men and women to publicly worship and speak of their life in the context of the spirit. In this context, there arose some women whom lives were later to be made by the church subjects of devotional work and used in encouraging other followers to devote their life for the good word of God. Still, the Methodism had not by that time fully accepted the participation of women in church activities, women played a big role in education. In this context, they were usually assigned the role of Sunday school teachers to teach the young believers the beliefs and practices of the church. Moreover, in some cases women were allowed to visit and coordinate visits paid to the sick and to offer prayers of healing. In regard to the itinerant preachers, their wives were usually regarded as holding a vital position in the church and were commonly considered as playing a supportive role in the ministries led by their husbands (Richard, 1992, 54).
Despite all these, women were not allowed to preach in the church in the better part of the eighteenth century. It was in the earlier nineteenth century that women through permission granted by Wesley were allowed to preach. In essence, the first female preachers made the transition between exhorting the gospel as previously allowed to a new era of preaching the gospel. In this respect, this was seen as a step forward by many other dominions such as the Church of England which never adopted the practice until after the end of World War II.
Despite the fact that he gave partial roles to women during his time, the death of Wesley in 1791 saw the predicament of women in regard to church roles change for the worse. In the following years, women preachers were only allowed to preach to women congregations though as history has it some of them still tried to ignore the many obstacles and preach whenever possible. An example is Mary Taft popular for the conversion of certain well known Wesleyan ministries.
As history has it, Methodism later split to form several bodies and the largest acceptance of women in the roles of the church were first evident in the breakaway churches. In essence, the novelty value of female was used by the primitive Methodists to expand in new areas. However, the fact that women had started to be recognized as itinerant preachers, most of Wesleyan churches later collapsed at the end of nineteenth century leaving women to act only as local preachers. In 1890, the role of women in the church received a big boost due to the establishment of Wesley Deaconess order whose main aim was cater for outreach needs of the female poor. This helped in ordainment of various deaconesses to preach in missions held in the large inner city. The deaconess were also deployed for oversees work to help establish Methodism in oversee countries (Paul, 1999, 67).
Many of the breakaway Methodist churches later adopted similar orders that permitted the ordainment of deaconesses to preach in the land and oversee. In the earlier twentieth century, all the Wesleyans churches had lifted the various obstacles placed before women and which prevented them from fully participating in the activities of the church. Women were from then on allowed to play equal roles like men and even to preach to mixed congregations. This was accelerated with the union of various denominations a move that resulted to the formation of the Methodist Church of Great Britain. In later times, women fellowships were established through efforts of the Home Mission department that sought to consider the major challenges and problems that faced women in their church work. Despite this, the first woman to become fully accepted in to the fully ministry of the Methodist church was ordained in the year 1974 (Donna, 2001, 26).
As per the ongoing discussion, it is true to say that the Wesleyan churches recognized to some extent the role of women in the church though they never fully accepted females to be equal to men in regard to church work. On the contrary, the roles given to women by the church were always subordinate to those played by men and at sometimes, women were openly discouraged from participating in the roles of the church.
Though much has changed today, the roles played by women in the Methodists church are not fully equal to those played by men. In essence, men usually assume strong and influential roles as compared to those assigned to women. This however does not imply that there are no women who play equal roles as men. On the contrary, there are a number of them but this number is proportionally low as compared to the number of men in high role position. In essence, women in trying to compensate for their seemingly subordinate status ended up forming the women fellowship which is mostly concerned with social issues in respect to the poor and the marginalized. The fully acceptance of women in the church is fully to be achieved and the Methodist church is no exemption.
Donna Behnke. Religious Issues in Nineteenth Century Feminism. London, Greenwood Press, 2001, pp. 24, 26
Greaves Richard. Triumph Over Silence: Women in Protestant History. London, Routledge, 1998, pp. 46
Paul Bramadat. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at Secular University. United States, Southern Illinois University Press, 1999, pp. 56, 67
Richard Swinburne. Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. London, Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 54