Employment status of clergy: goodbye to the ‘Servant of God’?

A paper given at the conference of the Law & Religion Scholars Network in Cardiff

Recent cases suggest that the courts are taking a more nuanced approach to the employment status of clergy. But developments in other areas, such as tax law, seem to be based on a narrow view of ‘ministry’ as synonymous with ‘ordained ministry’. So is it time for a rethink?


Introduction: the ‘Servant of God’

In President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt [1984] ICR 176 a Methodist minister failed in a claim for unfair dismissal before the High Court. It was held that the doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church did not provide for a contractual relationship between the Church and the individual minister; and in the Court of Appeal, at page 186F May LJ famously adopted the dictum of Waterhouse J in the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) below:

‘The concept of a minister as a person called by God, a servant of God and the pastor of His [ie, presumably, God’s] local church members seems to me to be central to the relationship.’

Lord Templeman used the expression again, in Davies v Presbyterian Church of Wales [1986] 1 All ER 705:

‘A pastor is called and accepts the call. He does not devote his working life but his whole life to the church and his religion. His duties are defined and his activities are dictated not by contract but by conscience. He is the servant of God.’

On which Peter Edge comments – correctly, in my view – in Legal Responses to Religious Difference (Kluwer Law International 2002, 241) that it was unfortunate that Lord Templeman did not ‘expressly begin his analysis by considering whether there was an intention to create legal relations’. But was the concept of the minister of religion as ‘a servant of God’ ever very helpful in terms of employment law? And what is a ‘minister of religion’ anyway? Continue reading