Minister had a vocation, not a contract
Posted: 4th June 2013
In an important ruling which distinguished religious vocation from employment, the Supreme Court has ruled by a majority that a Methodist minister who submitted to the church’s discipline for life was not an employee and was thus precluded from making an unfair dismissal claim.
In reversing a decision of the Court of Appeal in the woman’s favour, the court noted the ‘fundamentally spiritual purpose’ of a minister of religion’s role and ruled that, on a proper analysis of the church’s constitution and the factual background, there had been no intention to create an employment relationship.
The church’s constitution made clear that the terms of a minister’s engagement were incapable of being analysed as a contract and that ministers were paid a stipend and other allowances by virtue of their entry into full connection with the church and ordination, neither of which were contractual relationships.
Although the woman’s engagement could be terminated on disciplinary grounds, the terms of her appointment did not confer on her any unilateral right to resign, even on notice. Her role was described as ‘a vocation’ in the church’s constitution and standing orders and the court ruled that her rights and duties arose from her status under the church’s constitution and not from any contract.
The woman had sued the church for alleged unfair dismissal after her departure from her post as a superintendent minister in Cornwall. At first instance, an employment tribunal ruled that she had not been an employee and that decision was overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in a decision confirmed by the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court, by a majority of four justices to one, allowed the church’s appeal and restored the original tribunal’s decision.