IN JULY THIS YEAR the Court of Appeal upheld a claim by Southwark Diocese that the Church of England does not actually employ the clergy whom it can, nevertheless, deprive of their livelihood – surely an extreme case of having one’s cake, eating it and simultaneously refusing someone else the opportunity to eat bread. The verdict of Lord Justice Staughton in the case of the Rev d. Alex Coker, former curate of St. Philip’s, Cheam, was that “A minister of religion serves God and his congregation but does not serve an employer”. Similarly, according to the report in The Times (12/7/97), Southwark diocese itself had claimed that “God, not the bishop” was Dr. Coker’s employer.

However, this decision raises a multitude of questions, roughly categorised as moral, legal and theological, which when further examined may dampen the enthusiasm displayed by the diocese of Southwark for the decision in its favour.

The moral dimension is highlighted by the report that bishop Roy Williamson was “delighted” by the verdict. Unfortunately, it is not stated whether he is taking a similar delight in arranging alternative protection for his clergy. Next time he, or any other bishop, talks about the ‘unjust structures’ of society it is to be hoped someone will do a loud ‘Eric Morecambe’ cough which sounds like ‘Coker’ (rather than ‘Arsenal’). The unwillingness of the Anglican hierarchy to put in place proper employment protection reflects an attitude “of a kind that is not found even among pagans”. If in doubt, try describing it to one.

Legally, this verdict opens up other intriguing possibilities. If a person is not employed by someone, can that person be excluded from legitimate employment by the non-employer? Natural justice would suggest not, and ‘restraint of trade’ is a phrase which springs to mind. Yet Southwark diocese apparently welcomes the court’s decision that clergy serve only God and the congregation. It is also worth bearing in mind that during a vacancy the sequestrators of a parish are entitled to employ a clergyman temporarily if the bishop will not appoint. In the light of all this, it is worth asking whether the local employment of clergy by an Anglican parish is, in principle, perfectly possible and whether interference in this arrangement would in fact be itself illegal.

But what of the theological objection that Anglican clergy are representatives of the bishop? In response, it may be pointed out that Southwark’s defence against Dr. Coker apparently rested on the double claim that he was not employed by the bishop and that he was employed by God. (In an unfortunate display of judicial wit, Lord Justice Staughton pointed out the difficulties of serving a writ on the Almighty.) This, however, surely weakens the claim made by the bishop to his clergy that the cure of souls is ‘yours and mine’. If, from a legal viewpoint, God and not the bishop ‘employs’ the clergy, then surely from a theological viewpoint the cure of souls is ‘theirs and His’? By acknowledging a direct relationship between God and the individual clergyman, the bishop is theologically sidelined.

The implication of the decision accepted with such alacrity by the diocese of Southwark is that a clergyman of the Church of England is neither the bishop’s employee nor his servant, but is answerable both legally and theologically only to God and the local congregation. It is the task of the lawyers to tidy up how this relates to other aspects of Anglican legislation. Meanwhile, whilst not entirely welcoming complete congregationalism, we look forward to seeing a congregation which wishes to employ its own minister test this new interpretation in court.

(Which reminds me, looking back at last month’s Reformer, what is happening at Redland in Bristol?)