This blog concerns the recent decision in Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester  EWCA a Court of Appeal case involving a Church of England minister and his superior the Bishop of Worcester. Much has been written on this already (see here for example). In addition, my note last year considered the subject of employment status and religious ministers in general in respect of other Churches.
In Sharpe, the Court of Appeal was asked to consider the employment status of Reverend Sharpe who in the Employment Tribunal had been found to be neither an employee nor worker for employment legislation purposes. Reverend Sharpe’s claims were that he suffered detriment because of his whistleblowing and in addition constructive and unfair dismissal. In their Judgment, the Court of Appeal agreed with the first instance Tribunal (and overturned the Employment Appeal Tribunal decision in the process). Consequently Reverend Sharpe is precluded from bringing claims for unfair dismissal and whistleblowing unless he successfully appeals to the Supreme Court. At the time of writing it is not known whether he intends to appeal. In essence, the Court’s findings were that there was no contract of any kind in place between the minister and the Bishop and that it was not necessary to imply a contract because the relationship is governed by Ecclesiastical Law. Helpfully, the Court of Appeal in this case added that even if a contract existed, the elements of an employment relationship were not present. For example, lack of supervision and control, no power on the part of the Bishop to discipline the minister and no right of summary dismissal.
Some religious ministers may arguably have some protection to employment law (mainly the anti – discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010) if they can satisfy a Court (or their Church or other religious organisation) that they are an office holder (“personal office”) within the meaning of section 49 of the Equality Act 2010. Even then however, some ministers (for example with vows of poverty or those who receive only a small stipend) may struggle to overcome the second limb of the definition of personal office (that the appointed person is entitled to “remuneration”). This might mean that a whole category of people may potentially fall outside the main protection of our employment and equality legislation. This is the case especially if these cases continue to go in the way of Sharpe and also President of the Methodist Conference v Preston  UKSC 29 (in which it was confirmed that Methodist Ministers were not employees).
To bring out the point of my earlier note referred to above, the key to considering any religious minister’s employment status is to carefully consider what employment rights (if any) he or she might hold in light of the documents that set out the foundation of the relationship, the rules and practices of the Church, whether there are any specific arrangements relevant to the Minster and whether the parties intended the benefits and burdens of the ministry to be the subject of a legally binding agreement between them. It would be wrong for Church law to preclude or prevent an employment contract where one does in fact exist. Sharpe is another illustration that the question of employment status of religious ministers really does depend on the facts of the case and the particular circumstances of the minister.