Members, lay workers, woman missionaries and missionary
children at the first (Malaysia) Annual Conference held from Feb
21-27, 1902. - Methodist Church Archives picture.
LOCAL AND ANNUAL CONFERENCES
A tradition and a source
By EARNEST LAU
THE season for the holding of Local and Annual
Conferences in our Methodist Church year is on us. Following the
holding of Local Conferences in the churches in October, the three
Annual Conferences will be held next month - ETAC from Nov 8-9
at the Short Street Tamil Methodist Church, CAC from Nov 12-14
at Foochow Methodist Church, and TRAC from Nov 18-21 at Trinity
Theological College, each of them presided by the respective Conference
These meetings will be evaluating the work done by the churches
and conferences during the year 2002, and look ahead with plans
for 2003. Most laymen, except for members of the Local Church
Executive Committee (LCEC), may not be fully aware of their taking
place, and their significance in the Methodist system of governance,
unless some significant decision is made that directly affects
Yet, in referring to the Book of Discipline of The Methodist Church
in Singapore that is updated every four years at the General Conference,
which alone makes the laws and amends them, we find that these
Conferences represent the foundation of Methodist governance.
They are a systematic and methodical way of ensuring that the
40 Methodist churches in Singapore function in a rational and
lawful manner. It is relevant to note that a copy of the Book
of Discipline is, by law, lodged with the relevant government
Many Methodist laymen
may not know that the Local Conference, which each local church
convenes at least twice a year, typically at the beginning and
end of the year, is "the basic body in the connectional system
of the Methodist Church". It is therefore organised "from
the church" and comprises the members of the LCEC, local
preachers, diaconal ministers, honorary stewards, together with
retired ordained and voluntarily located ministers who choose
to hold their membership in that Local Conference.
But even more important is the fact that the District Superintendent
presides at the meetings and is the link between the local church
and the general Methodist Church. It addition, the Local Conference
reviews and evaluates the total mission and ministry of the local
church, receives annual reports from the various ministries and
organisations and adopts mission statements, visions, strategic
plans, directions, goals and projects which have been recommended
by the LCEC. In providing a platform for dialogue between the
local church and the "centre", as well as an opportunity
for a review of its programmes, it is a key and essentially democratic
aspect of Methodist Church government.
Less frequently, provision is also made for a local church to
convene a Church Conference where the whole membership may attend
and vote, thereby encouraging broad participation. Its session
is authorised by the District Superintendent, but may be less
practical where the membership is very large and the issues complex.
1784 conference in Baltimore
26th Session of Trinity Annual Conference held at Faith Methodist
Church from Nov 19-22 last year. - Methodist Message picture.
As stated in the Book of Discipline, the
purpose of the Annual Conference is "to make disciples for
Jesus Christ by equipping its local churches for ministry and
by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church
" Its composition, however, is markedly different from
that of the Local Conference because it is the body which defines
the membership of the ordained ministry, as well as those being
prepared for ordination as elders, affiliates and supply pastors
who have full-time appointment to a church.
Elders are directly amenable to the Annual Conference and have
not only the right to vote, but "have the sole responsibility
for all matters of ordination, character and conference relations
of ministers". It is to their Annual Conference that they
owe their status as "itinerant" preachers, i.e. they
are subject to annual appointments to any of the churches in the
Conference. It is therefore their duty to attend and furnish such
reports as the Discipline might require. Absence without satisfactory
reason is a serious matter.
Lay members who are elected by their own churches to attend the
Annual Conference may participate in and vote on all deliberations
except those matters which pertain to questions of ministerial
membership and their character and official conduct. In addition
they may serve on all boards except those on ministerial relations
and for the trial of ministers.
basically open and transparent discussion and resolution of issues
is meant to ensure that the churches in an Annual Conference move
and act in consonance with an agreed mission and vision. Like
the Local Conference sessions, the privilege is given to interested
laymen to attend and speak - but not vote - on issues being debated.
Therein lies the openness and strength of the Methodist system
of Annual Conferences.
Annual Conferences are part of the structure we have taken from
our American Methodist forebears, but can be traced to their origins
in the 18th Century when John Wesley called the first-ever conference
in the "Foundry" in London in 1744.
Having been an "itinerant" for five years, Wesley gathered
45 preachers, in addition to a large number of local preachers
from "societies" in many of the main towns. The conference
was essentially a meeting of his helpers and the ministers "to
give me their advice concerning the best method of carrying on
the work of God".
Coming so early after the founding of the Methodist society in
1739, the main thrust of this conference centred on what to teach,
how to teach and how to regulate doctrine, discipline and practice.
Because of the strict rule of conduct and methodical manner in
which they performed their religious duties, members of his group
were called "Methodists", a term of derision. Numbers,
however, grew steadily - even rapidly, and Methodist societies
were organised by Wesley throughout Britain and Ireland.
By 1774, the movement had grown such that he established yearly
conferences for all the ministers in the various societies to
meet. This was the origin of the "Annual Conference".
In America, the Wesleyan heritage of the Band, the Class and the
Society was not only accepted at full value but developed and
expanded. As organised groups, they were the primary units of
fellowship within the Church.
However, a separate Methodist Episcopal Church was formed at the
historic "Christmas Conference" of 1784 held in Baltimore,
Maryland, in order to cater to the needs of the people called
Methodists in America. They were being deprived of the sacraments
as English itinerant ministers were cut off from America after
the War of Independence. It was in Baltimore that Englishmen Francis
Asbury and Thomas Coke, together with other pioneers, became the
earliest ordained ministers, while Asbury was consecrated first
American Methodist Bishop - an office which Wesley and English
Methodists did not see fit to appropriate. Wesley remained in
Anglican orders all his life.
It is the Christmas Conference that later developed into the District,
Annual and the General Conferences, and The Methodist Church in
Singapore is one of its many inheritors.
Earnest Lau, Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also
the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.