Wycliffe Hall admits breach of law over sacked lecturer

by
09 January 2008

by Bill Bowder

Unfairly sacked: Dr Elaine Storkey, at a Fulcrum conference last year

Unfairly sacked: Dr Elaine Storkey, at a Fulcrum conference last year

THE Bishop of Liverpool and the Mayor of Kensington, named trustees of the Oxford theological college Wycliffe Hall, in an action brought against them and against the Hall’s Trustees as a body, have admitted this week that they broke employment legislation.

At a pre-hearing at an employment tribunal in Reading on Monday, they admitted, through their legal counsel, Mr Bruce Carr, that, in dismissing a senior lecturer, Dr Elaine Storkey, they had acted unfairly, and that there were no contributing factors from Dr Storkey that could justify their action.

Dr Storkey was dismissed last November from a lecturing post that she had held for four years.

At the pre-hearing, Mr Robin Lewis, the tribunal chairman, sitting alone, said that, as the Trustees of Wycliffe Hall had conceded that Dr Storkey had been dismissed unfairly, he calculated that she should receive “something in the region of £20,000”.

  Dr Storkey had brought a case against the Trustees for unfair dismissal, discrimination on religious grounds, and failure to provide a proper contract.

Bishop Jones, chairman of the Trustees, and Dr Andrew Dalton, Mayor of Kensington, the trustee who dismissed Dr Storkey, were specifically named by Dr Storkey in her evidence.

“We accept we have gone wrong in not accepting the statutory procedures,” said Mr Carr, counsel for the named trustees and for the Trustees as a whole. Mr Carr agreed to submit to the maximum award for unfair dismissal, subject to mitigation if Dr Storkey had found other employment. He also said that the Trustees did not propose to take any action on “contributory fault”.

After the hearing, Dr Storkey said: “It is fairly well established amongst my colleagues that there was bullying. I was dismissed by the college midway through grievance procedures that I had brought. I had appealed against their response to these, but I was then dismissed.”

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Dr Storkey said that she had intended to stay at the college until her retirement in a year’s time. It had pained her to be arguing with her fellow Christians. “But justice is important, and we all sit under the law.” Much of the compensation could be used up in costs, she said.

Mr Lewis set a date, 13 June, at which issues of mitigation could be resolved; but he said he did not expect any significant changes.

In the evidence submitted by Dr Storkey were included “one or two personal allegations” against the Bishop, who was specifically named as “colluding in the bullying by the Principal”, the tribunal heard.

Dr Storkey also claimed that she was religiously discriminated against by the college. That claim was now due to be tested at a two-day preliminary hearing on 11 and 12 June, which opened up the possibility of a “Punch and Judy” battle between conservative and liberal Evangelicals, the pre-hearing was told.

Mr Lewis said that the preliminary issue to be tested at that June meeting would be “whether the religion/belief rested on by the claimant in these proceedings which she defines as open Evangelicalism, liberal Evangelicalism, and/or membership of Fulcrum constitutes a religion or belief for the purposes of the 2003 regulations as distinct from conservative Evangelicalism”. Was open Evangelicalism “a religion or belief within the meaning of the regulations and could it attract the protection of the discrimination laws”, he wondered.

Mr Carr said that Dr Storkey, who chairs Fulcrum, was saying that she had a kind of belief that stood in distinction to conservative Evangelicalism. She would have to say that this nuanced difference between liberal open Evangelicals and conservative Evangelicals was a religion or belief protected by the discrimination laws.

The tribunal would have to decide whether those differences were enough to amount to a separate belief protected by the regulation. He said that the position of the Trustees was that there was no such difference. They believed that there was nothing in the regulations that required a further definition within a sub-set of beliefs.

For Dr Storkey, her counsel, Mr Charles Crow, said that she should not have to show that open Evangelicalism was a separate religion or belief, only that she had been discriminated against on the basis of those beliefs. That her beliefs might match the beliefs of others did not deprive her of protection. It would be sectarian to argue that she was protected only if she could that show her beliefs were different.

  Mr Lewis said that the ability to make such theological distinctions was “wholly absent” from his job description; but the matter was important, and the tribunal would be prepared to hear it. He ruled that for the preliminary hearing one witness and one expert witness should be heard from both parties. They should exchange the papers they would rely on beforehand.

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