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In President of the Methodist Conference v Preston, the Supreme Court ruled that a Methodist minister was not an employee of the Church and so could not pursue her claim for unfair dismissal.
For many years, it was accepted law that ministers of religion did not normally come within the definition of ‘employee’ for the purposes of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA) because they were traditionally deemed to be ‘office holders’ working for God and the unique nature of their appointment to carry out essentially spiritual duties meant that they did not have a contract of employment because there was no intention to create legal relations.
Subsequent case law has changed this position, however, with the courts recognising that the employment arrangements between a church and its ministers should not lightly be assumed to deny ministers statutory protection in the event of a breach of those arrangements.
Hayley Preston became an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in 2003. In 2005, she was offered and accepted the position of superintendent minister in the Redruth circuit for a period of five years. When she subsequently brought a claim for unfair dismissal, the Employment Tribunal (ET) ruled that she could not proceed with her claim because she was not an employee. Ms Preston appealed against this decision.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) overturned the ET’s decision. In doing so it referred to the 2005 decision of the House of Lords, in Percy v Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland, that the relationship between a minister of religion and her church could be considered to be one of employment within the meaning of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. As the claimant did not pursue her claim for unfair dismissal, the appeal did not consider whether or not she was an employee within the narrower definition under the ERA. However, the Law Lords had expressed the view that the employment status of ministers of religion needed clarification.
The Court of Appeal subsequently upheld the EAT’s decision, ruling that it was correct in law to find that the relationship between the Methodist Church and Ms Preston was contractual and that her contract was one of service. She was therefore an employee of the Church and entitled to bring a claim of unfair dismissal. The President of the Methodist Conference appealed against this decision and the appeal was upheld by the Supreme Court by a majority of 4:1.
In the Supreme Court’s view, the EAT and the Court of Appeal had ‘over-analysed’ the decision in Percy and paid insufficient attention to the Methodist Church’s Deed of Union and the standing orders which were the foundation of Ms Preston’s relationship with it. The primary considerations in such cases should be the manner in which a minister is engaged and the rules governing his or her service. The intentions of the parties concerned must be construed against their factual background, taking into account the rules and practices of the particular church and any special arrangements made with the particular minister.
The Court found that the manner in which a minister is engaged by the Methodist Church is incapable of being analysed in terms of contractual formation. The mere fact that the arrangement includes payment of a stipend, the provision of accommodation and recognised duties to be performed by the minister is not sufficient to lead to the conclusion that a minister is an employee. Furthermore, the disciplinary scheme applies equally to lay members of the Church and the relationship between a minister and the Church is not terminable except by the decision of the Conference or a disciplinary committee. There is no unilateral right to resign, even on notice.
The Court held that the ministry is a vocation by which candidates submit themselves to the discipline of the Church for life. No special arrangements existed in Ms Preston’s case and her rights and duties arose from her status in the constitution of the Church and not from any contract.
The appeal was therefore allowed and the order of the ET dismissing Ms Preston’s claim was restored.
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