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In the Eyes of the Lords: The Status of Methodist Ministers

In the Eyes of the Lords: The Status of Methodist Ministers

Numbers in square brackets refer to paragraphs in the judgment.

The Law Lords have stepped in to restore a decision made by an employment tribunal that regards the work of Methodist ministers as a vocation rather than employment, and therefore lacking any standing for unfair dismissal, in the case of The President of the Methodist Conference (Appellant) v Preston (Respondent) [2013] UKSC 29

The case relates to Ms Preston who, in 2003, was ordained in the Methodist Church and rose up through the ranks to become a minister in the Redruth Circuit. In 2009 she brought a claim of unfair dismissal against the Church, but was told by the employment tribunal that she did not have the sufficient standing for such a claim because she was not an employee.

The case relates to Ms Preston who, in 2003, was ordained in the Methodist Church and rose up through the ranks to become minister in the Redruth Circuit.

Under Section 94 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, only an employee has the right not be unfairly dismissed. Section 230 of that Act defines an employee as someone who has entered into or works under a contract of service or apprenticeship, and the tribunal held that she had not. This decision was reversed by the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Court of Appeal, but the Supreme Court (Lady Hale dissenting) decided to show solidarity with the reasoning and application of the law in the original tribunal decision.

The judgment focused on the fact that modern authorities in this field make clear that in such cases the tribunal should not primarily be looking to the ‘contractual character’ of the service of ministers. Instead, it was held that the ‘primary considerations are the manner in which a minister is engaged, and the rules governing his or her service’. [10] This venture requires an analysis of the parties’ intentions in light of the factual scenery.

The constitution and standing orders of the Methodist Church, listed by Lord Sumption at [20], provide that:

  1. A minister’s engagement is incapable of being analysed in terms of contractual formation. Neither admission to full connection nor ordination are themselves contracts.
  2. A minister’s duties thereafter are not consensual. They depend on the unilateral decisions of the Conference.
  3. The stipend and manse are due to a minister by virtue only of admission into full connection or ordination, and while a minister remains in full connection and in active life, these benefits continue even in the event of sickness or injury.
  4. The disciplinary rights under the Church’s Deed of Union, which determine the way a minister may be removed, are the same for ordinary members as well as ministers.
  5. The relationship between the Church and the minister is only terminable by the Conference or its Stationing Committee or by a disciplinary committee, and there is no unilateral right to resign, even on notice.

According to the majority judgment, the ministry is a vocation ‘by which candidates submit themselves to the discipline of the Church for life’. [20] A minister’s rights and duties arise from their status in the Church’s constitution and not from any contract. There is no basis or principle in law which allows the tribunal or the court to begin construing contractual characteristics in the constitution.

Since the relationship entered into when ordained is lifelong and with the Church, any subsequent and more finite appointments (such as that of being minister at Redruth for five years) do not create a fresh and more contractual relationship. [23]

Lady Hale (dissenting) took a different approach. She sought to draw out contractual elements in the arrangement and disputed that ‘gains’, such as the stipend and the manse, given to members of the Church were held in a trust arrangement. [45]

Lady Hale stated that it would be odd if a minister who was not paid his or her stipend or evicted from his or her manse could not rely upon his or her terms of appointment to enforce the payment or to regain possession. The suggestion that a minister would be a beneficiary under a trust upon which the Church holds its property was inconsistent with the stipend being paid centrally and the Church holding property under numerous different trusts. [45] The Conference controls a minister’s remuneration and accommodation, therefore more aptly playing the role of an employer.

According to the majority judgment, the ministry is a vocation by which candidates submit themselves to the discipline of the Church for life.

Lady Hale also maintained that there is a distinction between being a minister and having a particular appointment, rather than a more general member of the Church. [46] She held that a minister is assigned to a particular post for a defined period with particular duties, a particular manse and a stipend dependent on the level of responsibility. In any other context, such a post would involve a contract of employment. A prior (non-enforceable) commitment to go where you are assigned does not negate a mutual contractual relationship when you are assigned and agree to go to a particular place. [48]

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