There were Vice-Presidents of the PM Conference from 1872. After 1883 they were usually laymen, unless a layman was elected President. They were rarely active except during Conference, when they shared in presiding. WM had Vice-Presidents only inIreland, where they were Irish ministers elected by the Irish Conference to take the chair at all committees during the year, while the British President presided over the Conference itself.
The present office of Vice-President was created in 1932 at the suggestion of the non-Wesleyans. It was to be held by a lay person (or, after 1998, by a deacon) and was seen as a concession guaranteeing the rights of the laity. The earliest Vice-Presidents took little part during Conference and none preached at Conference until 1943. Until 1949 most were elderly and wealthy businessmen, honoured by the Church for their financial generosity. In 1951 H. Cecil Pawson travelled 14,000 miles preaching, but there was little for him to do at Conference, except to preside for 20 minutes while the President met the ordinands. In the '50s Douglas Blatherwick transformed the role and the following year Philip Race was told that the Vice-President, not the ex-President, automatically presided at all committees if the President was absent. The Vice-Presidents between 1950 and 1973 were younger, mostly professionals, often in law or education. The first woman elected was Mrs Mildred Lewis in 1948, but there were only three others (including Dorothy Farrar and Pauline M. Webb) before 1977. Between then and 1998 women have provided 13 out of 22 Vice-Presidents. The first husband and wife who were both elected to the office were Susan and Peter Howdle (in 1993 and 2002 respectively).
Both the type of person elected and the role itself changed in the years 1973-1983. Many lay servants of the Church (or their spouses) were chosen. There have been two black Vice-Presidents, the first Leon Murray (1938- ) of Telford (1985). Vice-Presidents are no longer likely to be wealthy. The Vice-President took the chair at Committees and at Conference if the President was absent; and in 1985 the Deed of Union was amended to confirm the developing practice that the Vice-President was entitled to preside at the Representative Session on the President's invitation, even when the latter was present. By then the two were co-ordinating their programme of visits, sometimes going to a District together. In 1982 the Vice-President was invited to assist at ordination by laying on of hands and the matter became one of debate during the 1980s. The 1996 Conference by a very narrow majority reaffirmed the usage that only ordained ministers should lay on hands. Nevertheless the Vice-Presidency has become a more influential role, symbolic of increased theological emphasis on the co-operative ministry of the whole Church.
The first deaconess to hold the office was Dorothy Farrar in 1952. Since the affirmation in 1993 that the diaconate is an order of ordained ministry alongside the presbyterate there has been debate as to the appropriateness of including deacons in what had been seen as an exclusively lay office. There were also questions about the title, some arguing that ‘Vice-’ implied that the holder would become President in a subsequent year. In 2011 however the Conference reaffirmed that the office should be open to deacons as well as lay people, that it should remain an annual office and that the title ‘Vice-President’ should be retained. Changes to the Deed of Union and Standing Orders were introduced to ensure that the President and Vice-President should work collaboratively and that most of the powers and duties of the President can be shared with the Vice-President. This came into effect in 2012.
In Ireland Vice-President of the Conference was a ministerial office, held by the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the British President being the President of the Conference. This arrangement was terminated in 2010. In the same year a new office of Lay Leader of the Conference was introduced, the holder being elected for a period of three years.
A vice-presidential badge of office, featuring a version of the coat of arms associated with the Wesley family, was first worn by Charles T. Nightingale in 1943 and from then on passed down by each Vice-President to his or her successor until stolen during the vice-presidency of Brian Thornton. Although subsequently recovered, this was replaced by a new badge in the shape of a cross.