THE chairman of the House of Clergy in the diocese of Worcester, Canon Stuart Currie, has welcomed a judgment by the Birmingham employment tribunal that clergy are office- holders rather than employees.
The Employment Judge, Alan McCarry, made the ruling after a claim brought by the former Rector of Teme Valley South, near Tenbury Wells, the Revd Mark Sharpe (News, 2 December). Mr Sharpe (above) claims that the Bishop and the diocese of Worcester failed to protect him from a catalogue of abuse and bullying at the hands of parishioners in his “toxic parish”.
The diocese rejected his claims, and, at a five-day preliminary hearing at the Birmingham employment tribunal in November, argued that Mr Sharpe had no right to bring a claim to an employment tribunal, because, as a Church of England parish priest with freehold incumbent status, he was an office- holder, not an employee or worker.
In a reserved judgment, published last Friday, Mr McCarry agreed. “I do not see that within the complex statutory structure of the Church of England it is possible to imply that any relationship between a freehold rector in the Church such as Mr Sharpe and any identifiable person or body which could be said to be consensual and contractual. Certainly, Mr Sharpe has failed to demonstrate to my satisfaction that such a relationship existed with either of the respondents.”
The judge said the Church of England, as the Established Church, “has occupied a central position in English society for several hundred years”. He went on: “Despite that, it has no legal personality. It cannot sue or be sued.
“The evidence conveyed to me the impression that, rather than being one body with a centralised structure of administrative authority, function, control, and direction, the title ‘Church of England’ denotes an amalgam of what sometimes seemed an infinite number of bodies, with no precise or clear picture to an observer such as myself of how the various jigsaw parts interact and fit together.
“The situation has come about, I believe, because of the piecemeal approach to legislation over the years amending a diverse range of ancient traditions.”
Canon Currie welcomed the ruling. “Some clergy are employed, such as chaplains and sector ministers, but the vast majority of stipendiary clergy in parishes are office-holders, and nationally the mood is very clear that people appreciate the freedom that this brings them,” he said.
“These are freedoms under the freehold; and clergy under common tenure enjoy pretty much the same freedom. The terms and conditions are as clergy would want them to be.”
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, also welcomed the ruling. “Clergy themselves have repeatedly said that they do not see themselves as employees, and do not wish to be seen as such. This case has shown that Church of England vicars are not subject to any employment contract, but are free to exercise their ministry as they see best within the framework provided by the law of the land,” he said.
“We hope that Mr Sharpe and Unite will respect this judgment so that we can all draw a line under this.”
Mr Sharpe was represented throughout his dispute by the clergy section of the trade union Unite. The union’s national officer for its community, youth workers, and not-for-profit sector said: “We are very disappointed with the judgment. We will be discussing the implications with Mark Sharpe, and no further statement will be issued until we’ve had those discussions.”
In 2009, Unite called for the resignation of the Bishops of Worcester and Dudley for “presiding over a culture of neglect and bullying” in the diocese, and demanded intervention by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
This week, Bishop Inge said: “When I saw Unite’s claims, I asked the chair of the House of Clergy to conduct an investigation with the clergy of the diocese. He convened a small group, who sent an anonymous questionnaire to the clergy.
“They found there was absolutely no truth in this allegation. Not one person mentioned a culture of bullying in the diocese in the way alleged by Unite.”
He described Unite’s media campaign as unhelpful. “When Unite first became in-volved in the situation in Teme Valley South, they issued a press release in which they labelled the parish as toxic. That was very unhelpful, because it immediately increased the emotional temperature. People don’t like being called toxic, especially when it’s not true.”
The current Rector of Teme Valley South, the Revd Robert Barlow, said that he had worked in and with the parishes as part of his previous position as agricultural chaplain. “The people I met through those activities were all good, ordinary people,” he said, “and I saw no evidence of toxicity at all.”
He said that prayers were said for Mr Sharpe and his family in services last Sunday, after the judgment had been handed down. “I am aware of the enormous amount of hurt that has happened to all concerned. I think the view of those in the village churches would echo that of the Bishop, where he says he hopes Unite and Mark Sharpe will respect the judgment and allow everyone to move forward.”
Mr Sharpe was appointed to his post in January 2005. In April 2006, he went on sick leave, which continued until he resigned from his post in December 2009. He had lodged two claims with the employment tribunal: the first, brought while he was still Rector, alleged that the Bishop and diocese failed to protect him from “detriments” he suffered as a whistle-blower. The second, brought after his resignation, was for constructive dismissal.
Mr McCarry said in his judgment that he found Mr Sharpe’s witness statement “indicative of a tendency to overstatement by generalisations that are not wholly accurate”, but added that he did not believe that these were “deliberate or deceptive”.
Unite said that Mr Sharpe “did not wish to be interviewed at this stage”.