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19 June 2013

Office-holders or employees?

Office-holders or employees?

On 15 May, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal and declared that a Methodist minister is not an 'employee' of the Church but an 'office-holder'.

Refusing Haley Anne Preston's claim against the Church for unfair dismissal by four votes to one in the prominent case of President of the Methodist Conference v Preston [2013] the Supreme Court effectively restored the original decision of the Employment Tribunal and the long-held understanding of the role of Methodist church ministers. The decision will have implications for ministers of other non-established churches dependent on their own processes.

Ordained as a minister in 2003, Ms Preston became Superintendent Minister in the Redruth Circuit in 2006. She received a manse, a pension and a stipend on which she paid tax. During 2009 she claimed to be under unfair pressure to resign and in June submitted her resignation, initiating Employment Tribunal proceedings for unfair constructive dismissal in September. The crucial issue immediately emerged as to whether Ms Preston was an 'employee' enjoying a contract of employment for the purposes of Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. The Employment Tribunal ruled out her claim, but the Employment Appeal Tribunal reversed the decision and the Court of Appeal subsequently upheld her claim in 2011.

The Supreme Court asserted that the question whether or not Ms Preston was an employee serving under a contract of employment could not in future be decided simply by classifying the minister's occupation by type: 'office' or 'employment', 'spiritual' or 'secular'. Nor could there be any presumption against the contractual character of the service of ministers in general. The primary considerations related to the manner in which a minister was engaged and the nature of the rules governing his/her service. In effect, it all depended on the intentions of the parties. Evaluating those intentions was contextual and fact-sensitive.

Methodist ministers have no contract of employment and the nature of their relationship with the church is governed by its constitution as contained in its Deed of Union; the standing orders of the Methodist Conference; and any specific arrangements made with individual ministers.

On this basis it was held inter alia in relation to Methodist procedures that:

  • How a minister is engaged cannot be regarded as contractual formation. Neither admission to full Methodist connexion nor to ordination were contractual in themselves;
  • A minister's duties were not consensual but depended on the unilateral decisions of the Methodist Conference;
  • A stipend was paid and a manse provided by virtue only of admission into full connexion or to ordination;
  • Payment of a stipend and provision of a manse were not pay for an employed post but "a method of providing the material support to the minister without which he or she could not serve God";
  • Disciplinary rights under the Church's Deed of Union were the same for ministers as for ordinary church members;
  • The relationship between the Church and the minister was terminable only by Conference, its Stationing Committee or by a disciplinary committee. There was no unilateral right to resign, even on notice.

The Supreme Court concluded that Methodist ministry was a vocation by which candidates voluntarily submitted themselves to lifelong discipline of the church. Accordingly, unless there were special arrangements made with individuals their rights and duties proceeded entirely from their status in the constitution of the church rather than from any contract.

This judgement against Ms Preston and in favour of the Methodist Conference will be extensively evaluated by the legal profession and its potential impact for other churches will evidently depend to a considerable extent on their relative recruitment procedures. Other churches may well wish to review their procedures with the benefit of expert legal advice. However, it can generally be accepted that the Supreme Court's decision will have a restraining effect on the development over recent years of formal employment rights for clergy.