A PANEL of five judges in the Supreme Court last week heard an
appeal by the President of the Methodist Conference against a
ruling of the Court of Appeal in December 2011 that an ordained
Methodist minister was an employee, and was, therefore, entitled to
bring proceedings alleging unfair dismissal against the Church (
News, 1 April 2011;
6 January 2012).
Mrs Haley Anne Preston (née Moore) was ordained in the Methodist
Church in 2003, and, after a period as a probationer, was appointed
Superintendent Minister to the Redruth Circuit in Cornwall in 2006.
She resigned in 2009, and began proceedings in the Employment
Tribunal in Truro against the President of the Methodist
Conference, claiming unfair constructive dismissal.
An employment tribunal has no jurisdiction to hear a claim for
unfair dismissal unless the claimant is an "employee" as defined by
section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. That definition
states that an employee is "an individual who has entered into or
works under (or where the employment has ceased, worked under) a
contract of employment".
The question in the Supreme Court was whether Mrs Preston, in
her capacity as a Methodist minister, had entered into, or worked
under, a contract that was a contract of employment. It was argued
on behalf of the President of the Methodist Conference that Mrs
Preston was not an employee, but an office-holder, who had, as a
consequence of her vocation, entered into a lifelong commitment to
the Methodist Church, and was governed by the constitutional
practice and discipline of the Church. Her position, it was argued,
was analogous to that of a police constable, who was not an
employee, but an office-holder, whose terms and conditions of
service were set out in regulations made by the Home Secretary.
For Mrs Preston, it was said that the courts had correctly
identified that there was a contractual relationship between a
minister and the Methodist Conference, and that Mrs Preston's
situation fell squarely within the 2005 case of Percy v. Board of
National Mission of the Church of Scotland.
In the Percy case, the House of Lords said that, although clergy
were the servants of God in the sense that God's word as
interpreted in the doctrines of their faith governed all that they
practised, preached, and taught, that did not mean that they could
not be "workers", or in the "employment" of those who decided how
their ministry should be put to the service of the Church.
The Supreme Court heard argument for two days, and has now taken
time to consider its judgment. If the court decides that Mrs
Preston was an employee, the case will be remitted to the
Employment Tribunal to adjudicate on her claim for unfair