The Connexion was first divided into Districts and Chairmen first appointed in 1791 at the first Conference after Wesley's death. The first list of Chairmen appeared in the Minutes of 1792. The first District Chairmen (now 'Chairs') were chosen for a limited period and with circumscribed powers. They continued to be ministers with pastoral charge. For both historical and ecclesiological reasons, the appointment of 'separated' Chairmen (i.e. without pastoral charge) was a much debated issue, e.g. at the 1894 Conference in Birmingham, where the proposed change, supported by James H. Rigg, H.P. Hughes and T.B. Stephenson, but opposed by Robert Perks, was rejected by a narrow majority. The issue was not finally resolved until 1957.
In the Bible Christian church the equivalent office was that of District Superintendent.
The Chairman's threefold role was defined in 1955 as that of Pastor pastorum, evangelical leader and District administrator. Until 1957 (except in Scotland) most Chairmen were either circuit ministers or District Missioners. In that year the number of Districts was reduced from 45 to 31 and separated Chairmen became the norm. Pastoral oversight and the exercise of Methodist discipline continue to be their primary responsibilities.
From the time of the Anglican-Methodist Conversations, there has been continued consideration of the roles of the Chairman and of the Circuit Superintendent in relation to that of a Diocesan Bishop. A report on 'What is a District Chair?' was presented to the 2006 Conference. More recent discussion has arisen about the role of the District Chair in the context of the “Regrouping for Mission: Mapping a Way Forward” process, which has resulted in a growing number of circuit amalgamations, creating fewer, larger Circuits. A report brought to the Conference in 2013, “Larger than Circuit”, reviewed the history and present position of Districts and their leadership, and set in motion of period of consultation about both these subjects.
Kathleen M. Richardson was the first woman appointed, in 1987, as chairperson of a District. The Conference of 2005 confirmed the change of name from 'Chairman' to 'Chair'. The Conference has also affirmed the principle that Districts may, with approval, operate with modified constitutions which permit regional groupings of Districts to operate as a single District. From 2006 it has been possible for the Conference to appoint more than one Chair to a District. District Chairs are ex-officio members of the Conference. They meet regularly in the Chairs’ Meeting and currently play a major part in the stationing of ministers (and, in conjunction with the Warden of the Methodist Diaconal Order, of deacons), through a process of ‘matching’ available persons to circuit appointments. Traditionally all of them had seats on the General Purposes Committee and the Stationing Committee, but now representatives of the Chairs’ Meeting sit on the Methodist Council and Stationing Committee. They meet regularly with other members of the senior leadership of the church in the Connexional Leaders’ Forum.
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