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Rector was not employee of bishop, tribunal decides

Anglican clergy 'do not wish to be seen' as employees

27 February 2012

An Anglican rector who claimed constructive dismissal was not an employee of the Church of England, an employment tribunal has ruled.

The Reverend Mark Sharpe received widespread coverage in the national media in November for his claims that his family had been forced to leave his Worcestershire parish after a campaign of harassment.

Among other things, he said his dog had been poisoned, his car tyres slashed and phone line cut.

The Court of Appeal in Moore at the end of last year held that Methodist ministers were employees and had the same rights as other workers (see solicitorsjournal.com, 21 December 2011).

However, Dr John Inge, bishop of Worcester, said the tribunal had recognised that Anglican clergy who were freehold incumbents were not “employees of the bishop, the Diocesan Board of Finance or anyone else”.

He went on: “Clergy themselves have repeatedly said that they do not see themselves as employees and do not wish to be seen as such.

“This case has shown that Church of England vicars are not subject to any employment contract but are free to exercise their ministry as they see best within the framework provided by the law of the land. We hope that Mr Sharpe and Unite will respect this judgment so that we can all draw a line under this.”

Giving judgment in a pre-review hearing in Sharpe v Worcester Diocesan Board and the Bishop of Worcester (case no. 1302291/2008), employment judge McCarry said parochial clergy had “always been aware and understood that they are not employees and that general employment law does not apply to them”.

Judge McCarry said that “understanding the legal basis between the incumbent of a benefice and the Church requires an understanding of the concept of the benefice as an ancient office and the accoutrements that traditionally accompanied the office”.

He said: “Primarily, the right to the benefice carried with it the right to the freehold of the parsonage house and the rector could not be removed from it during his lifetime.

“Consequently, by extension, the rector was considered to have a freehold right to his office and is still often referred to as a freehold officer holder or freehold incumbent.”

Judge McCarry said Sharpe provided no “direct service” and was free to perform his office “at the dictate of his own discretion and conscience”.

He said Sharpe was appointed to his office and “it was the office which defined what it was he had to do.

“No one in the diocese could require him to do more or had power to direct how he performed what the office required of him. No one supervised his performance in any meaningful way.”

Judge McCarry distinguished the case from the leading House of Lords case of Percy v Church of Scotland National Mission, in that Sharpe’s situation “went beyond that of Ms Percy, who was under the direction of her senior in the parish and subject to contractual disciplinary procedures”.

He ruled that Sharpe was not an employee of the Worcester Diocesan Board of Finance or the bishop of Worcester, nor was he was a ‘worker’ for the purposes of the Employment Rights Act. He dismissed the claims.

A spokesman for the union Unite described the tribunal’s decision as “very disappointing” and said it would be discussing the implications of the ruling with the Reverend Mark Sharpe.

Categorised in:

Contracts & Rights Termination