The annual Methodist Conference is the church's supreme legislative body, and is responsible for the oversight of the church's life and for the definition and interpretation of its doctrine.
John Wesley held the first such conference in 1744 with Charles Wesley, four other Anglican clergymen, and four of his lay preachers who were invited to join them. It lasted for six days, and the business was conducted (as continued for many years in the official courts of Methodism) in question and answer form. It deliberated about 'what to teach, how to teach and what to do, i.e. how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice'. Thereafter the Conference was called together annually and increased in size, being composed of certain preachers who were selected and summoned by Wesley (who normally presided), to 'advise, not govern' him. Other preachers were permitted to attend. It originally met in London, Bristol or Leeds (and Manchester from 1765). Its business was wide, one main concern being the choice, training, stationing and discipline of the preachers in connexion with John Wesley. That the Conferences in the later years of Wesley's life could sometimes be more than a sounding board for Wesley's own views is indicated by Thomas Hanby's report to James Oddie in 1775: 'We have had a very loving & agreeable Conference and I think Mr, W--- is not near so overbearing as he was. We have not had so free a Conference for many years, nor ever so full.'
In 1784, by the Deed of Declaration, the Conference was legally defined (as the Legal Hundred) and provision made for the election of the President and Secretary, and for the formal Conference resolutions and other acts to be recorded in the 'Journal' (see below).
Following Wesley's death, the 1791 Conference agreed that all preachers in full connexion should have every privilege possessed by the legal members of the Conference, so far as the 1784 Deed allowed (and the more senior preachers acquired the further right to vote for President and Secretary from 1814). It was therefore customary for preachers other than the Legal Hundred to meet and share in the discussions, including those elected by District Meetings and any Superintendent who wished to attend. In 1834 Jabez Bunting memorably declared that 'the living John Wesley is the Brethren in full Connexion'. Joseph Fowler kept detailed records of the Conferences between 1827 and 1852, which formed the basis of Benjamin Gregory's Side Lights on the Conflicts of Methodism (1898).
For many years the Conference remained entirely ministerial, but laymen sat on connexional committees (known at first as 'Committees of Review'), beginning in 1803 with the Committee of Privileges. Financial problems led to the inclusion of laymen on the committee of the Chapel Fund in 1819, and in 1836 laymen were for the first time appointed to the Contingent Fund committee on a representative basis. In that year Bunting declared that the issue of lay-delegation was 'dead and buried' so far as the WM Conference itself was concerned. It was not until 1878 that lay members were admitted to the Conference. This crucial development was marked by the launch of a Thanksgiving Fund. Thereafter, a Representative Session met, having equal numbers of ministerial and lay representatives. (But it was not until 1894 that the first woman, Catherina Dawson, was admitted. The first woman Vice-President was Mildred Lewis in 1948; and the first President Kathleen Richardson in 1992.) The ministerial Pastoral Session met separately. Each session dealt with its own exclusive business, but all was subject to ratification by the Legal Hundred.
From 1878 to 1890 the Pastoral Session met first. From 1891 to 1900 (the ‘sandwich compromise’ of Dr J.H. Rigg), the Pastoral Session met for four days, adjourned for the Representative Session, and then reconvened to complete its business, so enabling relevant matters of policy and finance to be settled before the confirmation of ministerial appointments. From 1901 to 1932 the Representative Session preceded the Pastoral Session.
Detailed summaries of Conference debates were carried in the Methodist press and in 1886 and 1887 the Methodist Recorder published daily issues during its sessions.
The other Methodist connexions followed the pattern of annual Conferences (as did the emerging American church, but with the addition of a four-yearly General Conference at national level). Alexander Kilham first advocated lay representation to the Conference, and this became the rule for the MNC in its conferences from 1797, with Guardian Representatives providing continuity. The BCs held their first Conference in 1819 and from 1824 lay representatives from District Meetings attended with the preachers. By their 1831 Deed every fifth conference was to have exact parity of lay and ministerial numbers.The first PM annual Conference was held in 1820, composed of two laymen to each travelling preacher (as later provided in the PM Deed Poll). The PM Conference came to consist of about 80 members, including the twelve permanent ones stipulated in the Deed Poll. Election as representative depended upon seniority, and the Conference came to be seen as lacking in vigour and significance compared with the District Meetings, at which ordinations and stationing took place.
The secessions of 1827, 1835 and 1849 all related to the authority to be exercised by the WM Conference and its composition (e.g. the Warrenite controversy and Lord Lyndhurst's judgment in favour of the Conference's authority). The resulting Methodist groups all formed annual Assemblies or Conferences of mixed representation, but not necessarily with the equivalent authority over the membership. Similarly, from 1806 the Annual Meeting of IM was not a legislative but a deliberative body.
Methodist Union in 1932 brought together the traditions of WM and PM and that of the UMC (which had adopted a conference of one session, with lay and ministerial parity). The Legal Hundred was dissolved, but a category of Conference-elected representatives was created to provide continuity and provision was made for a lay Vice-President. A separate Ministerial Session continued to deal with its exclusive business e.g. as to ministerial candidates, training and discipline, with a Representative Session of equal lay and ministerial numbers having exclusive jurisdiction over many other matters. The post-1932 Conference which numbered 900 people has progressively reduced in size to 384 in 1998. The parity requirement was replaced, with effect from 1998, by a minimum of one-third lay and one-third ministerial representation. Provision is made for representation from the Methodist Church in Ireland and from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, together with a number of members (mainly with associate status, not having voting rights) representing other autonomous Methodist conferences and churches and other churches and Christian bodies in Great Britain.
As a result of a major Review of the Conference (see below), a further reduction in numbers took effect in 2010, the total size of the Representative Session being 306, with provision for a five-yearly review of this figure. This is to include at least one-half lay members (other than those representing other Conferences and Churches) and a minimum number of deacons, currently 14.
The reduction of the scope of exclusively ministerial business and the introduction of a category of 'shared business', requiring the concurrence of both sessions, was adopted in 1989, that category then being significantly reduced in scope in 1998. Also in 1998, consequent upon the decisions about the diaconate, Conference resolved to create a Diaconal Session, with equivalent status and authority to that of the Ministerial Session. From 1932 on the Representative Session met first, but since 1963 the Representative Session has met after the Ministerial Session, with the Diaconal Session meeting between the two since 1999. On the recommendation of the Review of the Conference, the Diaconal Session was replaced by the Conference Diaconal Committee in 2009. The committee does not have the same legislative function as did the Diaconal Session, but has a right to be consulted on items equivalent to ministerial shared business. As a result of the adoption of changed terminology in relation to ministry, the Ministerial Session became the Presbyteral Session in 2012.
The Conference meets, usually in late June or early July, and traditionally this was in different parts of the connexion each year, with the representatives being offered hospitality in the homes of members in the host District(s). Latterly, for reasons of practicality and availability, many representatives began to use hotel accommodation. In 2004 the Conference met for the first time fully residentially, at Loughborough University, and in 2006 met for the first time in Scotland. (The PM Conference had met in Edinburgh in 1895.) Recent practice is to choose a venue with appropriate conference facilities and to use centrally organized accommodation, and circulation around the connexion and links with host Districts have thus been significantly reduced.
An annual Methodist Youth Conference was established in 1995.
The Review of the Conference (for which, see Conference Agendas 2005-2008), based upon the affirmation by the Conference that “the primary purpose of the Conference is to engage in Christian Conferring in order to discern the will of God and then to formulate and oversee ways in which the whole Connexion can respond to that will”, led to changes mentioned above, and also to more varied ways of working, such as workshops, hearings and reference groups.
The Journal of the Conference, duly signed and attested, continues to be the official legal record of its acts and proceedings. It is compiled by the Journal Secretary from the Daily Record of the Conference's decisions upon the matters which come to the Conference either through the Agenda (published in advance) or by Notices of Motion brought by members of the Conference. The Daily Record (which dates from 1838 in the WM Conference) is printed daily and circulated to Conference members for approval, with confidential matters dealt with in closed session (the 'written portion') being recorded but not circulated. The Minutes of Conference, published later, also serves as an Annual Directory. Legislative changes are published in CPD.
There was a separate Conference in Ireland from Wesley’s time to deal with Irish affairs but under the terms of the 1784 Deed of Declaration it was in effect a committee of the British Conference and the presence of a delegate from that Conference was required to give legal effect to its decisions. This continued until the Methodist Church in Ireland Acts in Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State gave legal independence to the Irish Conference in 1928, but the British President continued to be the President of the Irish Conference, the President in Ireland being titled ‘President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and Vice-President of the Conference’. In 2010 this practice was discontinued, the Irish President becoming also President of the Irish Conference.
' Monday, June 25th, 1744 The following persons being met at the Foundery: John Wesley, Charles Wesley, John Hodges, Henry Piers, Samuel Taylor, and John Meriton; after some time spent in prayer, the design of our meeting was proposed, namely, to consider: 1. What to teach; 2. How to teach, and 3. What to do; i.e. how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice.
But first it was inquired whether any of our lay brethren should be present at this Conference. And it was agreed to invite from time to time such of 'em as we should judge proper. It was then asked, Which of 'em shall we invite today? And the answer was: Thomas Richards, Thomas Maxfield, John Bennet, and John Downes, who were accordingly brought in…
'The first preliminary question was then proposed, namely, How far does each of us agree to submit to the unanimous judgment of the rest? It was answered, In speculative things each can only submit so far as his judgment shall be convinced: in every practical point so far as we can without wounding our several consciences.'
Manuscript minutes of the first Conference, in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol. 4 (1988) pp.67-8
'Q. Of whom shall the Annual Meetings be composed? A. Of three delegates from each circuit, one only of whom shall be a travelling preacher. But the travelling preachers shall not vote on any subject relative to preachers' salaries. 2.Q. How shall the delegates be chosen? A. By the Quarter day boards of the respective circuits; and it is recommended that they be chosen immediately after dinner the first day… 8.Q. How are the travelling preachers distinguished? A. By the term travelling preachers, and hired local preachers. 9.Q. What is the difference brtween them? A. Those termed travelling preachers are removable from circuit to circuit by the Annual Meeting. Those termed hired local preachers are not so removable. This is the whole difference; in all other respects they are equal and alike.'
PM Minutes, in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol.4 (1988), p.376