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Methodist local preacher

A Methodist local preacher is a lay person who has been accredited by a Methodist church to lead worship on a regular basis. Local preachers play an important role in the Methodist Church of Great Britain and other churches historically linked to it, and have also been important in English social history.

Historical background

"Local preachers" have been a part of Methodism from its beginnings as a revival movement in eighteenth century England. John Wesley tried to avoid a schism with the Church of England, and encouraged those who attended his revivalist meetings to attend their parish churches. However it quickly became necessary to build "preaching houses" where the Methodist meetings could be held, and these rapidly began to function as alternative churches even before the formal break with the Anglican church that resulted from Wesley's 1784 ordination of ministers to serve in the United States following the American War of Independence. Before the schism, Wesley had as accredited preachers only a handful of fellow Anglican priests who shared his view of the need to take the gospel to the people where they were. Because of their small number, these priests were necessarily itinerant, travelling around the country like Wesley himself. He therefore appointed local preachers, who were not ordained but whom he examined, and whom he felt he could trust to lead worship and preach, though not to minister sacraments.

As the independent Wesleyan church developed following the schism and Wesley's death, a pattern was soon established in which ordained ministers, whose number was still limited, were attached for a short period (at first three years, subsequently five, and now more usually seven) to a circuit, a local group of churches that were within a reasonable horse ride of one another. The circuit minister had pastoral oversight and administered sacraments, but the majority of services were led, and sermons preached, by local preachers. In its essentials, this pattern remains to the present day. Although by the end of the nineteenth century, most circuits were staffed by several ministers, there were almost always more churches in the circuit than ministers, many of them offering two or three services every Sunday. The need for local preachers has never declined.

Local Preachers in U.S. Methodism

Licensed Local Preachers (Called License local pastors in the U.S. and considered unordained clergy)have long been a part of the Methodist denominations which at various times merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, as well as others not associated. A "license to preach" was often the first official acknowledgement of someone's usefullness to the Methodist ministry, and the first step toward ordination (though some Preachers went no further than their local licenses). The United Methodist denomination calls it a "Local Pastor's License," it authorizes persons to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments only with the local church to which he/she is appointed by the Bishop or District Superintendent. Such licenses must be renewed annually by a District Committee on Ministry. Seminary students who are not yet ordained but are appointed to pastor churches are licensed as "Student Local Pastors" in the UMC. Smaller Methodist denominations, such as the Evangelical Methodist Church, retain the order and its name.

Women as local preachers

In early Methodism, a number of women served as local preachers (the heroine of George Eliot's Adam Bede is represented as one - although not a Wesleyan Methodist). However, in Wesleyan Methodism, from 1803 women were restricted to addressing women-only meetings, a ban that was not lifted until 1910. Many women, such as Sarah Mallet, however, ignored this ban. From 1918 on, women local preachers were recruited and deployed on exactly the same basis as men, whereas they were not admitted into the ordained ministry until 1971.

Importance of local preachers in English social history

Local preachers have always been required to undergo some form of training and examination - the examination being concerned with their doctrinal orthodoxy as well as with their knowledge of the scriptures and the history and doctrines of the church. Because Methodism had great strength among the lower middle classes and skilled working classes in nineteenth century England, training as a local preacher was one of the ways in which intelligent people who had little chance of formal schooling acquired education and an ability at public speaking. Although the church as an institution was by no means politically radical, many of its members were, and the discipline and eloquence of Methodist local preachers found a ready use in the developing labour movement of the later nineteenth century. Many of the founders of the trade union movement and the Labour Party in Britain were local preachers, perhaps most famously four of the Tolpuddle martyrs, including their leader George Loveless.

Training and accreditation of local preachers today

Currently, the training for local preachers in the U.K. consists of a course supported by local tutors, with examination on its content by continuous assessment rather than unseen examination. Those offering themselves for training first ask for a note to preach from the superintendent minister of their circuit, and if deemed acceptable are then listed as on note and begin the course of study, which takes between two and five years to complete. At the same time they begin to accompany an accredited preacher and share in the leadership of worship. After some months, provided favourable reports are received at the quarterly meeting of all preachers (ordained and lay) in their circuit, they then progress to being on trial, and are allowed to lead worship on their own, though the preachers' meeting continues to appoint preachers and other local officers to audit their services and make reports. The preachers' meeting also carries out an oral doctrinal examination at the beginning of training, at intermediate points, and before the final acceptance of the candidate as an accredited preacher. Final admission as a local preacher is sometimes referred to as being received onto full plan, the Circuit plan being the schedule of preaching appointments for the circuit.

The course ('Faith & Worship') is organised on a connexional (national) basis, but all other aspects of the training and examination of preachers are dealt with at the local circuit level. However, once a person is admitted as a local preacher, if they move to another circuit, they are entitled to preach there - though it is always up to the superintendent minister whether any preacher is given any appointments.

All candidates for ordination as a presbyter in the Methodist Church in Great Britain (or the Methodist Church in Ireland) are required to be admitted as local preachers before they can be accepted as candidates or begin their training.

In the United States, Local Pastor candidates attend a Local Pastors Licensing School. Such schools are offered by Annual Conferences or sometimes by Jurisdictions of the United Methodist Church.

Local preachers and the liturgy

Compared to lay people in some other demoninations, Methodist local preachers are accorded significant authority over the progress of a service, rather than just delivering the sermon. A local preacher may, at his or her discretion do a number of different things:

  • modify the order of service
  • omit or include any part of the order of service
  • determine which Bible readings are to be included, his or her views taking precedence to those reading defined in the lectionary

Increasingly, in British Methodism, local preachers are working collaboratively with worship leaders in the leading of worship. All preachers and worship leaders are offered resources for shaping worship and preaching by their own charity, the Leaders of Worship & Preachers' Trust (LWPT) which publishes a quarterly journal (Ichthus) and has its own website.

Local preachers worldwide

The institution of local preachers spread from the original Wesleyan Methodist church to the other Methodist denominations that developed in Britain; and from Britain to Methodist churches in other countries, particularly those that were founded or supported by the UK Methodist church, such as the churches in India, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Fiji, and many countries in Africa. The title of "local preacher" was used historically in several Methodist denominations in North America, and local preachers there had the right to marry and bury people (though not to administer Communion) as well as to lead worship. But the role has more or less vanished from America to-day. Although the modern US United Methodist Church recognises an order of "lay speakers", they do not have the authority or the responsibility for leading worship in the same way as a local preacher in Britain. Within the last decade, the United Methodist Church began an order called "local pastors," which are appointed by a bishop to serve in one local charge and resemble the local preacher model.

Lay preaching in other denominations

Although Methodism has probably organised the institution of local preaching more thoroughly than any other denomination, lay preachers are of course used by many other churches. The other non-conformist churches in Britain have long had similar arrangements, and the Church of England now makes considerable use of "lay readers", a title also used in the Roman Catholic church. However Anglican and Catholic lay readers, and indeed the lay preachers of other denominations, have never quite enjoyed the status within their own churches, or the recognition beyond them, that are associated with the Methodist local preacher.

References

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