Q: Why don't priests have employment rights? A: Because they find their reward in Heaven

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The Independent Online
Blessed are the servants of the Lord - but not apparently when it comes to the protection of employment laws, a sacked priest discovered at the Court of Appeal yesterday.

The Rev Alex Coker was told he could not have access to earthly powers to pursue a case alleging unfair and racially-motivated dismissal because his boss, God, was not of this world.

In a landmark ruling, Lords Justices Staughton, Ward and Mummery dismissed an appeal by the Anglican clergyman against an Employment Appeals Tribunal ruling barring him from taking his case before an industrial tribunal.

Lord Justice Staughton said: "A minister of religion serves God and his congregation but does not have an employer. There is not a contract that he will serve a terrestrial employer in the performance of his duties".

Discussing the argument that a clergyman's employer was God, the judge added: "I don't think you have an address for him so you will not be able to serve any documents".

Dr Coker, who is black, was sacked from his pounds 12,000-a-year post as curate at St Philip's Church in Cheam, south-west London, in May l994, losing a home and a car that came with the job. He says the Bishop of Croydon, who sacked him, had never given a reason for the dismissal.

The 48-year-old priest had been ordained by the Bishop of London in June l986 and worked for the next four years as an unpaid minister in the parish of St Peter's, Belsize Park, north London. With the agreement of the Bishop of Southwark, he took up his first paid appointment as curate to the vicar of St Luke's, Woodside, in November l990. The job was terminated by the Bishop of Croydon in November l993 and Dr Coker was then given a six-month appointment as the curate of St Philip's, at the end of which he was sacked.

When Dr Coker initially took his case to an industrial tribunal claiming his dismissal was unfair and racially motivated, he was told the tribunal did possess the powers to adjudicate on the matter.

However, the Church of England holds that clergy work for God, not the church, and are office holders, not employees, and so have no protection under employment law. This view was upheld when it took the case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal last year.

Dr Coker had taken his action against the Bishop of Southwark at the Court of Appeal arguing that a letter from the Bishop offering him the post at St Luke's in l990 was a contract of employment. Representing him, counsel Joseph Hage asked: " Why should Dr Coker, who has dedicated his life to serving the church, not be entitled to rely on the Employment Protection Act?

"Is is right that Dr Coker should lose his home, income and career without even being given the possibility of making a complaint in the courts ?"

Paul Goulding, for the Bishop, told the court that as a curate Dr Coker's working life was not conducted by contract but by conscience. He was a servant of God. If his manner of serving God was not acceptable to the church then his pastorate could be ended by the church.

Mr Goulding added that a curate's working life was carried out in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. God, and not the Bishop was his employer.

The original one-day hearing was a fortnight ago, when judgement was reserved. Yesterday the Court of Appeal judges ruled that Dr Coker was not employed under a contract, and his appeal was dismissed.