Stephen Trott replies to last month’s Reformer column.
Employment safeguards for the clergy do not imply a new ecclesiology

I would be pleased to send Reformer a copy of the paper which Chris Ball and I wrote recently on Employment Rights for the Clergy which would allay the fears he expresses in his piece, “Reform before Rights”. With the forthcoming modernisation of clergy discipline, so that incumbent and priest-in-charge are treated exactly alike, we make no proposal to abolish freehold for incumbents. It continues to have considerable importance in terms of security both for clergy and for their parishes.

To remove freehold from the parish priest would open up a massive set of problems: who would freehold be vested in, if not the incumbent? The PCC? The Diocesan Board of Finance? The Church Commissioners? I am sure Reformer would agree that freehold is best left where it is, with incumbents, who hold it on behalf of the local church of which they are the pastor.

Even the freehold, however, is no guarantee of fair treatment. Arbitrary action can be taken against incumbents in various ways, which can not be resolved without recourse to employment law – something which is at present denied not only to Church of England clergy, but to all Christian denominations and all ministers of religion in the United Kingdom.

Take for example the incumbent who perfectly properly continues in office at the age of 70, having been appointed before compulsory retirement was brought in. What can he do when he discovers that his stipend is being reduced, without any warning, because he is in receipt of a state pension? Because he is not legally an “employee” he is not covered by the Wages Acts and therefore can do nothing.

Or consider the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act. Clergy are injured from time to time in the course of their duties, but because they are not regarded as employees, the Act can do nothing to protect them. Other members of the Church can look to the Act to ensure that they work in a safe environment, but not the clergy.

Meanwhile the number of freehold posts is being steadily eroded, as benefices are merged, team ministries are set up, and livings are suspended sine die so that a half-time appointment can be made. More and more parishes have no incumbent, and more and more clergy are appointed as priests-in-charge. They are almost without protection under Canon law, and while the suspension of the living continues, there is no incumbent to speak for the parish when decisions are taken about key matters such as pastoral reorganisation or the parsonage house.

We are at present moving in the direction taken by the Anglican Church of Canada. Its General Synod has recently passed a new licensing canon which allows their bishops to revoke the licence of a cleric under any circumstances. There is no appeal from the bishop’s decision, and the priest concerned can be barred from appointment anywhere else in that diocese. The similarities in the laws of our two countries mean that the courts there, too, are reluctant to intervene so long as the Church follows its own procedures.

And herein lies the problem. The employment status of the clergy has been defined by the courts, which have taken a curiously pietistic view of the needs of those who work in the parish system. A priest employed as a lecturer, or a teacher, has employment rights. A sector minister employed by the Diocesan Board of Finance is also legally an employee. But a priest who is appointed by the diocese and paid by the DBF, but who happens to be a priest-in-charge of a parish does not. According to the Coker judgement, clergy who serve in parish ministry have no “terrestrial employer”!

There are only two ways to change the law in our legal system. One is to appeal against the earlier judgements of the courts, most recently that of the Court of Appeal in the case of Coker v. Diocese of Southwark in 1977. That would involve a hearing by the House of Lords, at considerable expense, with an uncertain outcome, and one which would directly affect only the Church of England. Clergy of other denominations need the law to be resolved as urgently as do those of the Church of England, and to pursue the matter in the courts will not automatically be of any benefit to them.

The other alternative is legislation. Some have suggested that this ought to be a matter for the governing body of each denomination to resolve. But what is the logic of this argument? Many secular employers would be extremely grateful to be able to decide for themselves what employment rights to afford to their workers, and thankfully they are not able to do so. In any event, the action taken by so many different churches and organisations would inevitably be piecemeal and unsatisfactory. And as we have seen, the result in the Church of Canada has been the abolition of whatever rights previously existed.

The only way to provide the same basic employment rights for all clergy and ministers of religion is finally to obtain a change in the law by means of an Act of Parliament. The government has announced a Fairness at Work bill during the current session of Parliament, which will be the best opportunity for many years for the needs of the clergy to be addressed. Detailed representations have been made to the Department for Trade and Industry, and MSF’s booklet on employment rights has been sent to MPs.

Reformer’s solution, of wishing for some kind of “mechanisms for accountability” within the church, is simply not a practical answer to those who find themselves treated unjustly by those who employ them as clergy. Their needs are no different to those of any lay employee of the Church. They need to be protected from arbitrary or unfair treatment at work and to have reasonable security against unfair dismissal. The requirement that they occupy tied housing makes their situation even more urgent than that of employees who are simply salaried.

Caring for the clergy in this way will not force any kind of ecclesiology on the Church in the way that Reformer fears, or affect in any way the independent character of local parish churches. It will simply ensure that those who are already “employed” as clergy in the service of the Church will be employed in the full legal sense of the term, which they surely deserve as much as any faithful servant of any organisation.

Stephen Trott is Rector of Pitsford with Boughton, in the diocese of Peterborough.