Church of England freehold incumbents not “employees”: Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester

See also: Not a Sharpe Turn: a note on Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester.

The Court of Appeal (Arden, Davis and Lewison LJJ) has handed down judgment in Sharpe v The Bishop of Worcester [2015] EWCA Civ 399 and held unanimously that the Revd Mr Sharpe, formerly freehold Rector of Teme Valley South in the Diocese of Worcester, was not an “employee” of the Bishop of Worcester for the purposes of his claim for unfair dismissal or a “worker” for the purposes of his other claims. The Court reversed the contrary finding of the Employment Appeal Tribunal and restored the ruling of the Employment Judge at first instance. In short:

“108. … A rector assumes office not simply because he or she is selected at interview but because he or she is installed as rector. That is not to be discounted as just another ceremony. As a clergyman, Reverend Sharpe must as part of his installation demonstrate his commitment to follow his calling by making the oath of Canonical obedience in the presence of the Bishop and his parishioners. In exchange for that, the Church provides him with the facilities to discharge his calling – stipend, housing, assistance with cars, and guidance on holidays and so on: there is an open offer by the appropriate organs of the Church to make those facilities available so there is no need for them to be discussed. They are taken as read. Any incumbent is expected to behave responsibly and given considerable freedom to take care of the souls of his parishioners in the way he considers appropriate. But, for a mixture of historical and ideological or theological reasons, the Church has little power of control over the way an incumbent discharges his functions or to remove him from his post. The reality is that that is not the point of the appointment. Put another way, by accepting office as rector he or she agrees to follow their calling. They do not enter into an agreement to do work for the purposes and benefit of the Church as a commercial transaction. On the facts as found by the employment judge, the Church, personified in these proceedings by the Bishop (in his corporate capacity), provides the institutional structure in which the incumbent can indeed follow his or her calling to be part of the ministry. The office of rector is governed by a regime which is a part of ecclesiastical law. It is not the result of a contractual arrangement.

109. … The opportunity for the hierarchy of the Church to intervene in the performance of duties [of an incumbent with freehold tenure] is reduced in practice to vanishing point or at least to the minimum. I have found it impossible to think of a professional person in an employment situation who would have the same level of security of tenure and independence of action, and certainly none has been suggested in the course of this argument” [per Arden LJ: emphasis added].

We hope to post a longer analysis when we have had the chance properly to digest the judgment. There is a Church of England press release welcoming the judgment here.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Church of England freehold incumbents not “employees”: Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester" in Law & Religion UK, 30 April 2015,

2 thoughts on “Church of England freehold incumbents not “employees”: Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester

  1. Pingback: Round-up of consistory court and other cases in April | Law & Religion UK

  2. Pingback: Not a Sharpe Turn: a note on Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester | Law & Religion UK

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