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Cleric appeals over employment

09 November 2012

AN EMPLOYMENT judge made a "perverse" decision when he ruled that a former rector was unable to bring a claim against his bishop and diocese, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) heard last week.

The Revd Mark Sharpe resigned from his post as Rector of Teme Valley South, near Tenbury Wells, in December 2009, and is seeking to overturn a decision by Birmingham employment tribunal, which upheld the position that C of E clergy are neither employees nor workers, but office-holders ( News, 22 February).

John Bowers QC, for Mr Sharpe, urged EAT judge Mrs Justice Cox to "strip away the mystique and esoteric language used by the Church of England", and recognise that "common law has been developed by the House of Lords and the Court of Appeal to the extent that it recognises that incumbents of a benefice in the C of E are not only office-holders but also employees."

He said that recent decisions affecting ministers of other denominations showed that "the tectonic plates have moved on this issue."

Mr Bowers said that the powers of bishops and duties of priests, in canon law, amounted to sufficient control, supervision, and direction to show that priests were employees of their bishops.

But Geoffrey Tattersall QC, for the bishop and diocese, described the canons as "symbolic". He said that a bishop had no power to instigate a complaint, and could only discipline a priest with his consent. "Disobedience to a bishop doesn't amount to conduct unbecoming, and doesn't become a disciplinary matter," he said. "The reality of the relationship is such that the canons do not have any meaning. It is symbolic, and in practice it means not much."

Mr Tattersall argued that decisions about the employment status of ministers should be taken on a church-by-church basis: "Just because a Methodist minister is deemed to be an employee does not mean that a C of E minister will be."

The judge reserved judgment, and said that the case involved "extremely interesting arguments" that required "a great deal of attention and thought".

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