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Group reacts to concerns over the clergy’s office-holder status

31 May 2024

Holy Trinity Horsham

The Revd Sam Maginnis, who chairs Church of England Employee and Clergy Advocates (CEECA)

The Revd Sam Maginnis, who chairs Church of England Employee and Clergy Advocates (CEECA)

THE status of the clergy as office-holders “must not be used to place increasing demands and expectations on clergy without offering reciprocal support structures and accountability of those making the demands”, the chair of Church of England Clergy and Employee Advocates (CEECA) has said.

The Revd Sam Maginnis, who chairs CEECA, part of Unite the Union’s Faithworkers’ Branch, is the Team Vicar of Horsham. He was responding to a letter in today’s Church Times requesting a discussion about “whether parish priests really are ‘office-holders’ with less job security than most secular workers, or whether it is a convenient management fiction”.

The letter, from a parish priest who requested anonymity, lists working conditions for the clergy, including: working “on average longer hours than most employees”; being “canonically obliged to remain within certain forms of wording in carrying out certain duties”; and being “compulsorily subject to both a draconian disciplinary system and a system of particular action outside that system without any appeal or redress rights”.

It says: “Instead of improving freedom for priests-in-charge and diocesan officers who have no freehold, continuing office-holder designation seems more designed to minimise the mutuality of obligations usual elsewhere, evade a formal duty of care, and preserve an autonomy of management conduct which would not be tolerated in modern secular employment structures. The Church seems to lag behind secular society markedly in terms of justice and accountability.”

The letter calls on the Church to “release in full the assurances that it has given the Charity Commission in recent years on office-holder-status vulnerability and the eligibility of priests for safeguarding inclusion when they are faced with emotional assaults in the form of repeated vexatious lay accusations”.

In his reaction, Mr Maginnis said: “Many stipendiary clergy value the freedom to develop their own ministry and vocation which being an office-holder brings. However, frontline ministry makes incredible demands on clergy’s physical and emotional resources and, without proper care and support from the dioceses and church hierarchy, incidence of stress, burnout, and breakdown among clergy will only increase.”

Among current concerns were the proposals to replace the Church’s housing provision for retired clergy (News, 2 February), which “represent a radical break in the covenant of care between the C of E and its clergy, fuelling further anxiety and the broader perception among clergy that their ministry is no longer understood or valued by the institutional Church”.

Office-holders (including most stipendiary and self-supporting parish clergy, and some chaplains who do not have a contract of employment or earn a salary) make up the single largest category among the clergy, although there are contractual elements to their ministry under common tenure.

This status has been subject to legal challenge in recent years. In 2015, the Court of Appeal rejected claims from Unite that beneficed clergy with freehold should be treated as employees or workers, in the case of the Revd Mark Sharpe, who resigned from his post as Rector of Teme Valley South in 2009, claiming that he was bullied by his parishioners and hounded out of office (News, 8 May 2015).

In his summary, the judge gave a detailed précis of the history of the law surrounding clergy appointments, going back as far as the Investiture Contest between popes and Holy Roman Emperors in the 11th century; and continuing right up to the introduction of common tenure in the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009.

Church House guidance on common tenure notes that “the great majority of office holders may remain in a particular post until they resign or retire” and lists a number of rights accrued to clergy office-holders, including the right to make use of a grievance procedure. But it also notes that there is “no resort to an employment tribunal if an office-holder is dissatisfied at the end of a grievance procedure”.

It also states that office-holders cannot claim constructive dismissal, as this “depends upon the existence of a contract of employment the terms of which have been breached by the employer. Office-holders under Common Tenure do not serve under a contract of employment.” Office-holders have the right to appeal to an employment tribunal only if removed from office after a capability procedure.

The Government, it notes, “has power to give the rights of employees to those in work who are not employees (including clergy, most of whom are office-holders), and is in a position to impose legislation on the Church”.

Last year, an employment judge ruled that a former curate in training, David Green, while not an employee, was a “worker”, and that his case against Lichfield diocese could be brought to an employment tribunal (News, 18 August 2023). Mr Green is thought to be the first clergy office-holder to bring a whistle-blowing detriment claim since a Supreme Court judgment in 2019 granted whistle-blowing protection to office-holders.

In 2020, a judge considering Dr Martyn Percy’s case against Christ Church, Oxford, where he was Dean, ruled that “an office holder can be in an employment relationship with an alleged employer”, and that his case could proceed (News, 6 October 2020).

Alongside legal challenge, recent years have seen the publication of theological and pastoral studies exploring both the freedoms and the vulnerabilities inherent in office-holder status and the “covenant” rather than “contract” model.

The Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing was made an Act of Synod in 2020 (News, 21 February 2020). A theological reflection by Canon Margaret Whipp, then lead chaplain of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, observed that “contractual frameworks, such as role descriptions, by stipulating predetermined limits and safeguards, may provide some useful protection against the worst abuses of covenantal generosity” (News, 5 October 2018).

But she warned that “an unduly legalistic emphasis on entitlement and duty” could “subtly debase and undermine the precious relational and gratuitous element which, within a fully theological understanding of covenant, is essential to our relationships of service and stewardship in the Church of Jesus Christ”.

During the formation of the Covenant, a working group on clergy well-being noted that “agency and professional office-holder status mean that boundary management is in the hands of the office holder which puts more pressure on clergy in complex and often isolated roles”.

A Living Ministry study published by the Ministry Council last year, Covenant, Calling and Crisis (News, 13 January 2023), further explored the covenant model, as the “primary basis of clergy working relationships”. It was, the study said, “vulnerable to exploitation both by clergy (if they prioritise autonomy over accountability) and of clergy (if accountability is privileged over autonomy in excessive demands and self-sacrifice)”.

In February, the General Synod carried a private members’ motion that sought the sanctioning of lay officers for bullying (News, 1 March 2024). The Draft Clergy Conduct Measure will allow for restraint orders to be applied against vexatious complainants (News, 14 July 2023).

Read the letter here

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