John Wesley believed that Methodism was raised up to renew the community by giving it a new understanding of God's nature, new life through faith in Christ and new power from the Holy Spirit to live without voluntary sin. Those wanting to be involved in this put themselves under obedience to Wesley who, as a minister of the gospel, saw his role and that of the itinerants as 'to feed and guide, teach and govern' them. In this system the members of society had no status, apart from the only one that mattered to them, that of knowing themselves to be loved and accepted by God in Christ.
The rapid proliferation of societies needed more supervision than Wesley's clerical associates or his itinerant preachers could provide and he (sometimes hesitantly) accepted the development of lay leadership: class leaders, local preachers, exhorters, prayer leaders, Sunday School teachers (all including some women), society stewards, poor stewards and trustees. These appointments were made by the Circuit Superintendent. They provided opportunities for the exercise of responsibility and gifts of leadership otherwise denied to the lower classes at that time.
After 1791 the itinerants became ministers in all the usually accepted senses of the word, but their administration of the Lord's Supper remained a divisive issue, even after the Plan of Pacification in 1795. Organized by means of their annual Conference into a collective pastorate, they gradually increased their authority by methods which weakened that of the laity, apart from the trustees, with whom they arrived at a system of mutual support. Much of the vitality and responsible involvement of local laity, characteristic of Wesley's day, had been diminished or transferred to the other branches of Methodism. At connexional level, on the other hand, a limited number of laymen served from 1803 on Committees of Review, which prepared the way for the eventual admission of lay representatives to the WM Conference in 1878. The presence of such outstanding figures as William M'Arthur, Henry H. Fowler (Lord Wolverhampton) and Sir Robert Perks led to a more outward-looking Conference.
In the mid-nineteenth century laymen were appointed as 'Home Missionaries' to take the gospel to new places or to revive the work where it had declined. In 1871 they became 'Lay Agents' to 'save unsaved souls', forerunners of the later Lay Pastors. More recently, during a shortage of ministers in 1979, the employment of paid lay workers at Circuit and District levels was revived. In 1980 they became 'Lay Pastoral Assistants' to support the pastoral work of the ministry and in 1985 'Lay Workers' providing 'a distinctive and complementary ministry' that was neither a substitute for nor subordinate to the presbyteral ministry. A Board of Lay Training was set up in 1966, with Pauline Webb as its first Secretary; its outstanding contribution was to ensure that ministers recognize lay training as part of their normal work. Cliff College continues to train lay people in evangelism, but also in a wider range of studies, such as missiology and apologetics, especially since 'Fruitful Field'.
It is arguable that every secession from WM arose from dissatisfaction with the Conference's authority, particularly the veto over local affairs exercised through Superintendents. Again, since ministers were paid by the circuit, WM was publicly perceived as a system of 'taxation without representation'. Down to the middle of the nineteenth century the growing national demand for representative government added to the pressure for laymen to have a greater involvement in connexional affairs. In all the branches of reformed Methodism, laymen had a place in decision-making at both connexional and local levels.
Methodism's popular reputation as a denomination whose organization is sustained by the laity is only partially justified. Although in 1932 the Deed of Union asserted that ministers had no priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to all the Lord's people, lay administration of the Sacraments, and the Lord's Supper in particular, held by PM and UM to be part of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, was thereafter regarded as acceptable only as an exception, i.e. when no minister was available. Many non-WMs were unhappy that an important principle had been sacrificed.
Since 1932 a careful balance has been developed so that the Representative Session of the Conference has a minimum number of lay members (currently almost one half) and the Vice-President is always either a lay person or a deacon. At the local level, general oversight and approval (or otherwise) of proposed new members is by the Church Council. The chairing of the Church Council and Circuit Meeting was traditionally a ministerial function, but is now open to suitably qualified lay members.
By 1998 the nature of ministry, both lay and ordained, paid and unpaid, was being entirely rethought and a course of integrated development for lay people, ministers and deacons devised. The heart-searching about the training and use of lay people that seems to have recurred regularly, both before 1932 in the various branches of Methodism and after it in the united Church, is perhaps a sign of healthy self-criticism, leading most recently to 'Fruitful Field'.
July 1748: ' [Richard Robinson, fellow-student of Charles Wesley at Christ Church, Oxford] called me to defend the lay-preachers, and would fain have brought me to confess we sent them. I declared the matter of fact, that when God had sent any one forth, and owned him by repeated conversions, then we durst not reject him.'
Charles Wesley' Journal