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When the boss is God

08 May 2015

THE status of the clergy as office-holders and not employees has been upheld by three Court of Appeal judges ruling on the case of Mark Sharpe, who was trying to claim against the Bishop of Worcester for constructive dismissal.

The details of the case make for gloomy reading, but the point of principle is no surprise. Clergy are indeed office-holders "employed by God", in spite of being paid by the Church Commissioners and subject to the authority of their bishop. But Mr Sharpe may have been right to believe he was in with a chance: the principle of clergy as office-holders is arguably eroded by Common Tenure, which seeks to extend to the clergy at least some of the benefits and disciplines of employed status.

"Status" is a funny word, but an important one when it comes to defining what is particular about the clergy. Being an "office-holder" suggests that priests are knowledgeable and competent in their sphere, and trusted to exercise independent judgement. They are not employees in the sense that they are not formally line-managed; they are subject to review, but not to appraisal; there are no bonuses for long hours, nor for extraordinary dedication, enterprise, or success.

The reality is, that many of the clergy - whether despite or because of Common Tenure - do not feel particularly secure, nor that the degree of authority which they hold is taken seriously. Like other middle-class professionals, in particular doctors and teachers, they feel that they are endlessly subject to reorganisation that takes them away from the vocation they would otherwise love.

Some argue that all three professions have lost status since women became a large part of the workforce. If that is true, what it tells us is how society at large continues to expect women to function differently from men, and accords them a lower status for doing so.

Women, typically, are seen as good at collaboration, and at people skills; but authority and independence - the fruits of proper learning in all its meanings - are more likely to be challenged if demonstrated by women. So women clergy too easily learn to be meek and good, and some male clergy have followed their example.

The Church's initiative to find senior leaders, however well-intentioned, cannot help but confirm the view of many that they are doomed to be "also-rans"; that, unless they jump on to the five-years-here, five-years-there/major parish/archdeacon track (or a parallel one), they are just foot soldiers.

Common Tenure has never really sat well with the clergy's being "employed by God". It is a double-edged sword, and some of the disillusion suffered by clergy comes from being caught between two incompatible understandings of their ministry.

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