I found this nugget in a 1748 letter to a Quaker where Wesley delineates some differences Christianity (as well as methodism, of course) has with most Quakers. This underlines the point that Wesley was largely conservative in his theological and social opinions. This is likely true whether we are speaking about his loyalty to the Church (the “Old Plan:”) or women in ministry. On a related tangent, I’ve written about classical methodists views, for example, respecting Miriam, sister of Aaron & Moses which is a similar bent. Nonetheless, here Wesley gives us a very succinct or convenient explanation respecting women’s ordination.
Where ambiguity occurs, I believe, we’re wrong to judge Wesley having a ‘change of heart’. Rather, when Wesley allows a rare exception, it’s a liberty that doesn’t abolish the overall Rule. The paucity of female preachers among early & classical methodists ought to be proof enough (they might be counted on one hand), but recall the category ‘preacher’ was never meant to be a ‘priest’ or clergyman. Wesley indeed saw a wide gap, at least if we take as genuine his sermon The Ministerial Office (#115). However, this letter (as one might see below) Wesley makes a further distinction between preaching vs. prophesying. The latter is treated like an seer (extraordinary), or perhaps evangelical teacher, rather than ordained man. Again, ‘extraordinary’ is meant with no permanent rule or unfettered license in mind.
Here’s Wesley’s disagreement with women preaching as expressed against the Society of Friends, given in Q/A format, in his letter to Thomas Whitehead, a young convert. Robert Barclay, incidentally, was a chief apologist, or systematizer, for Quakerism during the life of George Fox, so his thought is taken as standard. The letter may also be read in Wesley’s Miscellaneous Works, vol. 2, page 112, middle of section X:
The problem is with the so-called ‘providentialist’ view which takes the extremely infrequent cases where Wesley tolerated women exhorters, or very rarely, preachers, as in the example of Mrs. Fletcher (aka. Miss Boasanquet, gifted wife of Wesley’s favored successor, Mr. John Fletcher). Yet, this is much like Wesley’s later ordinations, where he pursued the path reluctantly and only under the most cautious consideration. Where such indeed occurred, the intent was not to grant freedom. And, in the situation of Mrs. Fletcher, Wesley in fact said, “The difference between us and the Quakers in this respect is manifest. They flatly deny the rule itself [sic. women’s silence], although it stands clear in the Bible. We allow the rule; only we believe it admits of some exceptions” (Letter to Miss Bosanquet 1771). Mrs. Fletcher was not allowed in the pulpit but stood on the stairs or some other slight elevation.
An opinion I wish to eventually make more available by download is A.B. Lawson’s appendix in John Wesley and the Christian Ministry. When Lawson’s book was published, 1963, this was a fairly fundamental view among methodist clergy where male preachers and ministers were indeed normative. Evidently, Lawson’s judgement disappeared along with Clarke’s commentaries (which also derided the notion of female clerics) after the so-called civil rights movement. Obviously, Lawson, with Clarke, fell out of favor. Yet, Lawson notes
Even in Mr. Wesley’s most generous opinion, the final sense of it was, it should not be suffered. According to Lawson, Wesley approved the ancient ministry of deaconess, but only as a lay-office– mostly in the capacity of leaders of private female bands. Yet, even this was the exception rather than rule. With such leaders, Wesley basically advised they avoid long discourse, stick to his Notes on the New Testament if poised by scripture questions, and otherwise avoid the scandal of public preaching as much as possible (advice to Mrs. Crosby in 1769). No others were known in the connexion aside from, perhaps, Sarah Mallet who had the proven extraordinary gift (preaching in an unconscious state). But Wesley’s preachers were not priests to begin with– during Wesley’s life it was kept as a lay office. Today’s ubiquity of women in the ministry seems to me to have less to do with Wesley’s actual intentions– even spirit– but more with contemporary developments; yea, politics.