A Methodist minister in Cornwall has been allowed to sue her church for unfair dismissal, but only because the church effectively treated her as an employee rather than an office holder.
Some media reports suggest that this ruling gives employment rights to all clergy, paving the way for any church to be sued for unfair dismissal. But these reports are wide of the mark.
Ministers of religion are generally regarded as office holders, not employees, and are therefore outside the scope of employment law.
However, if a church treats a minister as though he is employed, a tribunal is likely to rule that there is an implicit employment relationship between the church and its minister.
Indicators may include the existence of terms of service, circumstances suggesting the payment of a ‘salary’ rather than a ‘stipend’, or rules about working time.
In the specific case involving the Methodist minister from Cornwall, the Standing Orders of the church went into the realm of stipulating ‘terms of service’, the minister was subject to an annual appraisal and there was an element of supervision of her role.
The position of clergy within the Church of England was made more complicated by an Ecclesiastical Measure enacted in 2009. However, the measure still treats Anglican clergy as office holders.
The Christian Institute’s in-house Solicitor-Advocate, Sam Webster, says churches need to be aware of the law in this area.
He said: “Many churches seek to formalise their arrangements with the minister whom they have called.
“However, churches should be careful that they do not inadvertently create a contract of service with corresponding rights and obligations.
“While there are religious liberty exemptions for churches within employment discrimination law, it is usually preferable for all concerned to treat a minister as an office holder.
“By being office holders, ministers are free to act according to their spiritual calling rather than the terms of a contract.
“Being an office holder gives the minister freedom to determine for himself how best to serve his calling.
“For churches, too, it is important. If church ministers are deemed to be employees then their churches would be forced to justify a decision to remove their minister if they erred in doctrine or conduct and the matter went to an employment tribunal.”