Clergy employment: Church of England rector wins appeal on jurisdictional issue

An Employment Appeal Tribunal (Mrs Justice Cox, sitting alone) has just handed down judgment in Sharpe v Worcester Diocesan Board of Finance Ltd & Anor (Jurisdictional Points : Worker, employee or neither) [2013] UKEAT 0243 12 2811. The question before the EAT was whether the claimant, a priest in the Church of England, was working under a contract of employment or was alternatively a “worker” within the meaning of s. 43K Employment Rights Act 1996, as amended, after he was appointed as Rector in the Teme Valley South Benefice in the Diocese of Worcester.

Mr Sharpe presented two claims to the Employment Tribunal, complaining that he had suffered detrimental treatment as a result of making protected disclosures and that he was then constructively and unfairly dismissed. After a pre-hearing review the ET held that there was no jurisdiction to determine his claims because there was no contract in existence between the parties and, further, Mr Sharpe did not fall within the statutory definition of “worker”. After oral argument, the appeal was stayed pending the decision of the Supreme Court in Methodist Conference v Preston [2013] UKSC 29. The parties subsequently filed further written submissions on the effect of that decision.

In the EAT Cox J took the view that

“Following the decisions in both Percy and Preston it is now abundantly clear that cases concerning the employment status of a minister of religion cannot be determined simply by asking whether the minister is an office holder or is in employment. As the Employment Judge recognised in this case, an individual appointed to work in a particular post may be both the holder of an office and an employee working under a contract of service. Whether there is payment of a salary, whether it is fixed, and whether the worker’s duties are subject to the control of the employer are important matters to be considered in determining this issue” (para 146).

As to the distinctions between the facts of the present case and Preston, there were a number of important differences between the rules and practices of the Methodist Church and those of the Church of England – not least that there is nothing in the Church of England that appears comparable with the process of full connexion and “stationing” in the Methodist Church (paras 159 & 160).

Cox J concluded that the ET’s decision that Mr Sharpe was not a “worker” within the meaning of s 230(3)(b) had been arrived at in error. She allowed the appeal and remitted the case to the Employment Tribunal for a fresh hearing “in accordance with the legal principles set out in this judgment” (para 244).


I have posted a longer analysis of the judgment and the issues here.