Employment rights – ministers of religion

Posted: 5th January 2012

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. 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.

Recent case law has recognised that a broad-brush approach to the issue can result in ministers being denied statutory protection in the event of a breach of the employment arrangements relating to their work.
In President of the Methodist Conference v Preston (formerly Moore), the Court of Appeal has ruled that a former Methodist Minister was an employee for the purposes of bringing a claim of unfair dismissal. The Employment Tribunal (ET) had decided that it was bound by the decision of the Court of Appeal in President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt that the spiritual nature of the relationship between a Minister and the Methodist Church meant that the arrangements between them were non-contractual. The ET therefore ruled that Mrs Preston could not proceed with her claim because she was not an employee. Mrs Preston appealed against this decision.
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The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) upheld her appeal. In doing so it carried out a thorough review of relevant case law, in particular the 2005 decision of the House of Lords in Percy v Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland, in which the Law Lords were of the view that holding an office and being an employee are not incompatible, and the 2007 decision of the Court of Appeal in New Testament Church of God v Stewart, in which the Court held that an ET is ‘no longer required to approach its consideration of the nature of the relationship between a minister and his church with the presumption that there was no intention to create legal relations’.
The Methodist Church appealed against the EAT’s ruling and lost. The Court of Appeal praised the analysis of the authorities as set out by the EAT and agreed that the ruling in Parfitt could not be sustained in the light of the House of Lords’ decision in Percy. The EAT was correct in law to find that the relationship between the Church and Mrs Preston was contractual and that her contract was one of service. She was therefore an employee of the Church and was entitled to bring a claim of unfair dismissal.