Friday, 17 May 2013

Methodist Minister is not an Employee

In the case of President of the Methodist Conference v Preston [2013] UKSC 29 the Supreme Court had to consider the, surprisingly complex, question of whether a Methodist Church Minister was an employee or an office holder

In 2003 Ms Preston (at that time known as Moore) was admitted to full connexion (ie Ordained) in the Methodist Church.  She was then stationed at the Taunton Circuit as a probationer and, in November 2005, she accepted an invitation to become the Superintendent Minister (ie senior Minister) in the Redruth Circuit of the Methodist Church. Following a contentious reorganisation of the Circuit in 2009 she resigned and brought a claim against the Church in an employment tribunal alleging Constructive Unfair Dismissal.

Under section 94 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 only an employee can bring a claim for unfair dismissal and Section 230(1)  of the Act defines an employee as someone who has entered into or works under a contract of service or apprenticeship.  In this case the Methodist Church claimed that Ms Preston was not an Employee but was an "office holder" and therefore the Employment Tribunal had to decide as a preliminary issue whether Ms Preston was an employee or not.  The Tribunal held that she was not am Employee but the EAT in [2010] UKEAT 0219_10_2411  and the Court of Appeal in [2011] EWCA Civ 1581 held that she was an Employee. The case then came before the Supreme Court which decided that both the EAT and the Court of Appeal were wrong and the Employment Tribunal had been right all along, which no doubt has provided a degree of quiet satisfaction to the Employment Judge concerned.  However the fact that the case has gone all the way up to the Supreme Court indicates that the question involved is not as simple as might have been expected.

As  the Supreme Court itself noted in the past it was basically assumed that a Minister of |Religion was not an Employee for the purposes of employment Law but was an Office Holder however more modern authorities, in particular Percy v. Church of Scotland [2005] UKHL 73  have made it clear that the question whether a religious minister serves under an employment contract or is an Office Holder is a matter of fact which can differ depending on the particular Constitution of the Religious Organisation itself and the nature of the religious post being held. 

The constitution and standing orders of the Methodist Church showed that
(1) A minister’s engagement is incapable of being analysed in terms of contractual formation. Neither admission to full connection nor ordination are themselves contracts.
(2) A minister’s duties thereafter are not consensual. They depend on the unilateral decisions of the Methodist Conference. 
(3) The stipend and manse are due to a minister by virtue only of admission into full connection or ordination, and while a minister remains in full connection and in active life, these benefits continue even in the event of sickness or injury.
(4) The disciplinary rights under the Church’s Deed of Union, which determine the way a minister may be removed, are the same for ordinary members as well as ministers.
(5) The relationship between the Church and the minister is only terminable by the Conference or its Stationing Committee or by a disciplinary committee, and there is no unilateral right to resign, even on notice.

The Ministry described in the constitution and standing orders was a vocation, by which candidates submitted themselves to the discipline of the Church for life. A minister’s rights and duties arose from their status in the Church’s constitution and not from any contract. The relevant relationship was between the minister and the Methodist Conference, and the Conference could move a minister from one circuit to another. Ms Preston was serving as a minister at Redruth pursuant to the life-long relationship into which she had already entered when she was ordained and therefore she could be moved from Redruth or her post abolished without that giving grounds for a claim for unfair dismissal.

The case therefore makes it clear that the question whether a Religious Minister is or is not an employee is an extremely fact based one.  On the basis of the decision it seems clear that Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican Diocesan Priests are not Employees though they might be if they were employed as Chaplains by, for example the NHS. For other religions with a much more decentralised structure such a many Free Churches, Synagogues or Mosques it is quite possible that their religious Ministers could be employees. No doubt the point will be argued out again in another Tribunal before too long.