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‘Incapable’ clergy face the axe as freehold comes under review

THE ENDING of the 800-year-old system of clergy freehold will be debated by the General Synod when it meets next month.

A report by a working party of the Archbishops’ Council proposed this week that the freehold, which provides security of tenure to 5000 Church of England priests, be replaced by a system of “common tenure”. It will be possible to remove clergy, including bishops, from office if they show a “lack of capability”.

The property-ownership element of clergy freehold would transfer not to the parish, but to the diocesan board of finance.

Representatives of the clergy trade union Amicus met Professor David McClean, chairman of the working party, before the report’s launch on Monday. Rachel Maskell, the union’s national officer, said: “We do not see why clergy should have to give up the security of freehold in order to gain their employment rights.”

Under the new proposals, all new clergy would come under a “common tenure” agreement. Existing clergy, including non-stipendiaries, will be encouraged to opt into the new scheme. Otherwise, freeholds would be ended when they became vacant.

In return, clergy would gain employment rights under Section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, which covers people who are not employees. This ensures rights such as a job description; maternity, paternity and compassionate leave; the chance to appeal to an employment tribunal; and the possibility of redress in the case of unfair dismissal.

An earlier report recommended extending these rights to the 4000 clergy who do not have security of tenure under a freehold. The new report, Review of Clergy Terms of Service: Part Two, argues that the ending of freehold is essential because the present system treats certain clerics as having property rights, “akin to ownership”. This placed legal obstacles to giving them Section 23 rights, not least because of the principle that rights ought to be balanced with accountability.

Clergy who hold common tenure may be subject to a “capability procedure” if they are falling below “an accepted minimum standard”, the report says.

“The procedure is likely to apply to those clerics who are not competent, or where the job is being done but pastoral relationships are breaking down because of, say, an abrasive personality. . . Lack of capability implies a mismatch between the requirements of the job and the person doing it.”

The procedure would involve an initial assessment by the archdeacon, who might throw out the accusation or issue an informal warning. If no improvement can be shown, two different panels must issue formal warnings before a final capability panel meets to decide whether to remove the priest from office. Appeals are possible at each stage; and the sacked priest would be able to apply to a secular employment tribunal.

The working party reckons that a nationwide system would require an additional 18 human-resources posts, costing up to an extra £1.5 million a year. Bishops and their staff would need addi-tional human-resources training, and all clergy would be required to participate in a regular ministerial review scheme.

Speaking on Monday, Professor McClean rejected the idea that the new procedure would militate against unusual priests. “I rather like some eccentrics in the Church,” he said. He also rejected the accusation that the procedures could be misused. Many people, including outsiders, would be involved in the process to ensure that it was fair.

Professor McClean also argued that that clergy “ownership” of the parochial house had conferred only “very limited rights”. His committee’s proposals would “restate, in real terms, what those rights were”. They were rights of possession, but not of ownership, he said.

The Revd Tony Bell, chairman of the Amicus union’s clergy branch, said that he had the impression that Professor McClean and the Church’s Ministry Division were “more concerned with dismantling the parish control of property and the freehold, than they are in Section 23 rights for clergy. The rights are too selective,” he said.

Review of Clergy Terms of Service: Part Two (Church House Publishing, £6; 0-7151-4072-8).
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