Priests Not Employees, English Judge Rules in Labour Dispute

Article excerpt

Priests are not employed by the Church of England under a contract of service, Britain's Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled in a case heard last year.

An industrial tribunal, therefore, cannot entertain a priest's complaint of unfair dismissal.

The tribunal was considering the case of Rev. Alexander Coker, who was alleging unfair dismissal against the Diocese of Southwark.

His claim for re-engagement was brought against the diocese, but the tribunal ordered that the Bishop of Southwark and the diocesan board of finance, who paid Dr. Coker's stipend, should be joined as respondents to the claim.

In December 1994, Prof. R. W. Rideout, sitting alone as chairman of an industrial tribunal in south London, decided as a preliminary issue that Dr. Coker was an employee -- and that therefore the industrial tribunal had jurisdiction to hear his complaint.

But in March 1996, Judge Hull, who sat with two lay assessors in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, reversed that decision. "We understand the law to be plainly established by the highest authority," his judgment said. "A priest of the Church of England appointed to an assistant curacy is not, as a result of that appointment, employed under a contract of service, but is the holder of an ecclesiastical office."

In reaching its decision, the tribunal referred to previous decisions of the courts which were relevant to the issue, and to the formularies and constitution of the Church of England, which are a part of the common law of England:

The work of a Church of England priest, Judge Hull said, was unlike that of any secular employee. A priest was obliged to undertake certain spiritual duties, and to take the oath of canonical obedience to the bishop in all things lawful and honest. He was subject to the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts and to certain judicial powers of the bishop.

An assistant curate was admitted to his office in a parish by the bishop's licence and must act in accordance with the incumbent's direction. For any cause which appeared to him good and reasonable, a bishop might at any time summarily revoke a curate's licence and remove him after having given him the opportunity to show reason to the contrary, and subject to the curate's right to appeal to the archbishop. Those were not rules of practice or convention, said Judge Hull, they were principles of law established by statute.

A priest who was not appointed to an ecclesiastical office might work under a contract of service which included the carrying out of spiritual duties. For example, a school chaplain might serve under a contract of service which provided that he was to teach physics and religious knowledge to the pupils, and also to say the holy offices and administer the sacraments in the school chapel at times to be fixed by the headmaster. The bishop's licence would no doubt be required for the exercise of the strictly ecclesiastical duties, and the extent to which the headmaster could control the chaplain's priestly duties might well be a matter of doubt and difficulty. …