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
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
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
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.