A Methodist minister is not
an "employee" of the Church, the Supreme Court has ruled by a
majority of four to one. He or she is not, therefore, entitled to
bring a claim against the Church for damages for unfair
In a judgment released on
Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the rights and duties of
Methodist ministers arise entirely from their status in the
constitution of the Methodist Church. It is a vocation by which
candidates submit themselves to the discipline of the Church for
Haley Anne Preston (formerly
Moore) was ordained as a minister of the Methodist Church in 2003,
after a period as a probationer minister. In 2006 she was appointed
Superintendent Minister of the Redruth circuit in Cornwall. It was
agreed that she would receive a stipend, a manse, and a pension,
that she would pay tax under Schedule E, and that she would be
entitled to a pension.
In June 2009, she submitted
a letter of resignation, and in September she commenced proceedings
in the employment tribunal, alleging unfair constructive
Under the Employment Rights
Act 1996 only an employee has the right not to be unfairly
dismissed. Section 230 of that Act defines an employee as "an
individual who has entered into or works under . . . a contract of
employment". The Employment Tribunal ruled that Ms Preston was not
an employee. The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that she was, and
the Court of Appeal agreed.
Lord Sumption, with whom
Lord Hope of Craighead, Lord Wilson, and Lord Carnwath agreed, said
that the question whether a minister of religion served under a
contract of employment could no longer be answered simply by
classifying the minister's occupation by type: office or
employment, spiritual or secular. Nor could it be answered by
reference to any presumption against the contractual character of
the service of ministers of religion generally. The primary
considerations were the manner in which the minister was engaged,
and the character of the rules or terms governing his service.
Methodist ministers have no
written contract of employment. Their relationship with the Church
is governed by its constitution, which is contained in the Deed of
Union, the standing orders of the Methodist Conference, and by any
specific arrangements which were made with a particular
The Deed of Union, which
dates from 1932, states: "Christ's ministers in the Church are
stewards in the household of God and shepherds of his flock. Some
are called and ordained to this sole occupation and have a
principal and directing part in these great duties but they hold no
priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to all the
Lord's people and they have no exclusive title to the preaching of
the gospel or the care of souls."
To become a minister, a
candidate must first obtain the judgment of the Ministerial Session
that he or she was fit to be admitted into "full connexion" and
ordination. The Representative Session must then resolve that he or
she was to be admitted and ordained.
Lord Sumption said that the
manner in which a minister was engaged was incapable of being
analysed in terms of contractual formation. Neither the admission
of a minister to a full connexion nor his or her ordination were
contracts in themselves.
The stipend and manse were
due to the minister by virtue only of his or her admission into
full connexion and ordination. While in full connexion, those
benefits continued, even in the event of sickness or injury unless
he or she was given leave of absence or retired.
The minister disciplinary
scheme set out in the Deed of Union and the standing orders was the
same for all members of the Church, whether ministers or lay
members. The relationship between the minister and the Church was
not terminable except by the decision of the Conference or its
stationing committee or a disciplinary committee. There was no
unilateral right to resign, even on notice.
In all those circumstances,
Lord Sumption concluded, the ministry described was a vocation by
which candidates submitted themselves to the discipline of the
Church for life. Unless some special arrangement was made with a
particular minister, the rights and duties of ministers arose
entirely from their status in the constitution of the Church, and
not from any contract. Ms Preston was serving as a minister at
Redruth pursuant to the lifelong relationship into which she had
entered when she was ordained.
Lord Hope, agreeing, said
that the court could not ignore the fact that, because of the way
the Methodist Church organised its own affairs, the basis for Ms
Preston's rights and duties was to be found in the constitutional
provisions of the Church, and not in any arrangement of the kind
that could be said to amount to a contract.
Baroness Hale disagreed with
the majority, and said that it would be odd if ministers who were
not paid their stipend or were evicted from the manse could not
rely on their terms of appointment to enforce the payment or regain
possession. Everything about the arrangement between the minister
and the Church looked contractual, Lady Hale said. It was a
specific arrangement for a particular post, at a particular time,
with a particular manse and a particular stipend, and with a
particular set of responsibilities.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal,
and reinstated the decision of the Employment Tribunal. It follows
that Ms Preston will not be able to bring a claim for unfair
dismissal against the President of the Methodist Conference.