Thursday, 30 April 2015

Former Worcestershire vicar "not an employee"

Updated

From the Worcester diocesan website

Court of Appeal upholds clergy freedom

30 Apr 2015 By Sam Setchell

The Court of Appeal has upheld the freedom of clergy to be office holders rather than employees with its judgement in the case regarding former Worcestershire vicar, Mark Sharpe.

The court has agreed with the initial judgement of the Employment Tribunal, which ruled that Mr Sharpe was not an employee of the Bishop, the Diocese or anyone else.

The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Revd Dr John Inge said: “We are delighted that the Court of Appeal has taken this view of the matter. There has been considerable consultation with the clergy on this issue as well as discussions at General Synod, and clergy have consistently said that they don’t wish to change their status as office holders. To become employees, clergy would lose the freedoms which are at the heart of the Church’s ministry and this is not something that they want to give up.

It is regrettable that UNITE fails to understand the context in which parish clergy exercise their ministry whilst the Church seeks to uphold the freedoms enjoyed by its clergy.”

Bishop John continued: “Mr. Sharpe’s claims of the various incidents which despoiled his ministry in Teme Valley South are disheartening to read. However I am encouraged to note that the clergy who have ministered in these churches both before and since Mr Sharpe’s appointment have all spoken very warmly of the people there and their experience doesn’t reflect any of the negativity that Mr Sharpe claims to have faced.”

BBC News has this brief report: Worcester vicar loses unfair dismissal appeal.

Updates

The full judgment of the Court of Appeal is here.

Frank Cranmer Law & Religion UK Church of England freehold incumbents not “employees”: Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester

Steven Morris The Guardian Vicar who claimed he was victim of four-year hate campaign loses court battle

Gavin Drake Church Times Clergy are office-holders, not employees, appeal court rules

Posted by Peter Owen on Thursday, 30 April 2015 at 11:53am BST | TrackBack
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Comments

There is a lot that is good about being an office holder, but the reality is that with Common Tenure clergy are being treated more and more like employees. I suspect that the recent raft of reports will result in a further focus on clergy 'performance'. It can all lead to the suspicion that clergy are treated as de facto employees until the moment that employment rights kick in. Then we are office holders.

Posted by: Brett Gray on Thursday, 30 April 2015 at 12:47pm BST

Does this drive a hole though any CDM procedure? If you're not an employee, who has the authority to discipline you or dismiss you?

Posted by: Commentator on Thursday, 30 April 2015 at 2:58pm BST

I make no comments on this specific case.

However, I observe that as a priest who has recently moved from being an office-holder to being a diocesan employee (in Worcester diocese), I have been genuinely surprised by how different it feels being an employee, and how much more aware I am of not being a relatively free agent. Not least, I am under different constraints about what I can and can't say in this election campaign!

However, I would also observe that some of the proposed changes of the new reforming agenda being put before the church by the Archbishops' Council, and especially the issue of making office-holders "redundant" following pastoral reorganisation in a way more-or-less comparable to secular employment, may – if enacted – tip the balance of judgement away from seeing clergy as office-holders and towards treating them as employees.

Posted by: Doug Chaplin on Thursday, 30 April 2015 at 11:05pm BST

The judgement makes clear that the power to dismiss lies with the English legal system, via Clergy Discipline Tribunals, and not with any "employer". It suggests that the Tribunal system and its independence from the bishop is part of the evidence that clergy are not his (or her) employees.

Posted by: David Walker on Friday, 1 May 2015 at 6:34am BST

There is a case in the RC Diocese of Portsmouth in which the judge said that a priest was not an employee but went onto say that the Bishop was responsible for his actions - this was an abuse case where the accuser withdrew her complaint. Is that judgement in line with Mr Sharpe's case?

Posted by: Joseph Golightly on Friday, 1 May 2015 at 8:07am BST

The Bp of Worcester, "There has been considerable consultation with the clergy on this issue as well as discussions at General Synod, and clergy have consistently said that they don’t wish to change their status as office holders. To become employees, clergy would lose the freedoms which are at the heart of the Church’s ministry and this is not something that they want to give up." This seems to me to be the heart of the matter. Clergy are used to 'their freedoms' which has included the freedom to abuse when the only concern of the church has been to protect its reputation and to protect the clergy. I am aware of a parish where there have been a number of complaints from lay people but I have been unable to get the clergy, Area Dean, Archdeacon to take the complaints seriously. I was shocked and saddened when within 48 hours of receiving two complaints the then Area Dean described the complainants as being troublemakers, having made no attempt to meet with the people involved or even engage with the issues raised. The conclusion has to be that if a lay person makes a complaint they are inevitably trouble makers as the 'freedom' of the clergy puts them above reproach. The gulf between clergy, especially stipendiary clergy, and lay people is wider now than it has ever been in my experience.

I am very sad about this ruling. We live in a time when transparency and accountability are increasingly important. It seems that the church is wilfully neither prepared to be transparent nor accountable.

The Bishop of Worcester says there has been considerable consultation with clergy, how about consultation with lay people? By insisting on allowing clergy the freedom of being office holders and not employees we are in danger of getting more and more maverick clergy who are less and less in touch with the real world, especially the world of work which includes the constraints and protections of employment law. the Bishop of Worcester's response only goes to show how completely out of touch he is with the world in which most of us live.

Posted by: Anne on Friday, 1 May 2015 at 10:03am BST

This ruling has given the C of E permission to continue to discriminate and victimise clergy with no consequence and no recourse in law and no earthly protection. The Bishops will continue to bully and destroy clergy lives at will, just because they don't like particular clergy. It is completely insane to create a legal situation where the Bishops are untouchable.

Posted by: Gill Forbes on Friday, 1 May 2015 at 2:42pm BST

This case is not that significant. If anything, it is a recipe for lawyers to make more money as each case needs to be decided on its facts. One aspect of the case that is relevant is that it is no longer adequate automatically to cast clergy in their own 'office holder' category and state that they cannot therefore be employees (or workers). The Revd Mark Sharpe needed to show that he was an ''employee" in order to claim for constructive dismissal. However, which clergy can point to an employment contract? Interestingly, the case might have been different if he had been under common tenure, although that is speculation on my part. What readers of the case want to know is what were the underlying facts? The evidence of the victimisation sounds disgusting, but these situations don't happen out of the blue. Hard cases make bad law. This might have clarified the law to an extent but I doubt many clergy would want their terms of service changed on the back of it.

Posted by: Anthony Archer on Saturday, 2 May 2015 at 11:28pm BST

The "self employed office holder" status of Anglican clergy is a convenient legal fiction which serves the church well, although they are De Facto employees - employees in all but name. At one time this free range status was held to apply to all clergy but fairly recent court cases relating to both Methodist and Roman Catholic clergy have challenged that assumption. It remains to be seen how much longer it remains tenable in relation to Anglican clergy.

Posted by: Adrian on Tuesday, 26 May 2015 at 8:19am BST
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