LAW REPORT: Clergyman was employed by Church, not God

Coker v Diocese of Southwark. Industrial Tribunal (Professor Rideout, chairman). 24 February 1995.
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CNotwithstanding the spiritual nature of his duties, an Anglican clergyman had a secular contract of employment with the Church of England and could bring proceedings against it for unfair dismissal.

Professor Roger Rideout, chairman of the London South Industrial Tribunal sitting at Croydon, gave a preliminary ruling that the applicant, the Reverend Dr Alex Coker, was entitled to pursue a claim against the Church of England in which he seeks compensation for unfair dismissal and reinstatement.

Dr Coker, who was ordained in 1986, was initially taken on as assistant curate at St Luke's in Croydon on the understanding he would remain there until he secured some independent appointment. But at the end of the three- year training period, after differences arose between him and his vicar, he was dismissed. He was then given a six-month temporary appointment at St Philips, Cheam Common, following which he was taken off the Southwark pay-roll. He claimed he was unfairly dismissed. But the Church argued that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the complaint.

Joseph Hage (Free Representation Unit) for the applicant; Sitinder Gill (Winckworth & Pemberton) for the respondent.

PROFESSOR RIDEOUT said a distinction had sometimes been drawn in this context between an office holder and an employee, but Barthorpe v Exeter Diocesan Board of Finance [1979] ICR 900 supported the view that being an office holder did not preclude an individual from being an employee too.

In President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt [1984] ICR 176 it was held that, because of the spiritual nature of the relationship between a minister and the Methodist Church, the arrangements in relation to his stationing throughout his ministry and the spiritual discipline which the church was entitled to exercise over him were non-contractual. But it was difficult to see why the spiritual nature of the work should preclude the existence of a contract of employment. The Church of England exercised a very high degree of organisational control. A church which chose to organise itself along secular forms should not be precluded from the secular regulation afforded by contract.

In Davies v Presbyterian Church [1986] ICR 280, Lord Templeman said it was possible for a man employed as a servant, or as an independent contractor, to carry out duties which were exclusively spiritual. Other modern authorities also favoured the view that spiritual duties could be the subject of a contract of service.

There seemed no reason why this should not be so. Contract could produce the organisational situation in which the spiritual duties were performed.

It might be said that no contract was possible, or at least intended, because the minister of religion owed his primary duties to God, rather than to his church. That was, of course, true. But individual churches produced their own rules, procedures, forms of service and articles of faith. If a minister within that church chose to serve his God outside those rules and articles, he would not be permitted to remain a minister in that church. It followed that he owed duties to his church which it was hoped would be identical to those he owed his God. There was no reason why the relationship with his church should not be regulated by a contractual agreement to adhere to the rules and procedures and faith of that church.

There was, therefore, no necessary barrier to the existence of a contractually enforceable relationship, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, such an agreement should be assumed to exist. A high proportion of the normal factual consequences of employment were present in the relationship of a curate with his diocese, including a high degree of control by the vicar on behalf of the diocese.

It followed that the tribunal had jurisdiction to hear the complaint.

Paul Magrath, Barrister.