Religion is a topic that polarises most people. It can provoke, at the very least, fierce debate and, at its worst, full-scale war. This despite the fact that Churches and religious groups are, by their very nature, often perceived to be altruistic.
Ministers of religion have historically been regarded as pertaining to a higher order: namely, working on behalf of some deity or other. And as a result, Churches have not generally been held publicly accountable for their employment practices.
However, a landmark tribunal judgment last week found that ministers of religion were entitled to claim unfair dismissal as direct employees of the Church.
The case will set a precedent and force other Churches to review their employment practices, according to reverend Gerry Barlow, chair of the faith workers’ branch at trade union Amicus.
“Churches are totally inept when it comes to HR,” Barlow told Personnel Today. “Churches had previously been able to do whatever they liked without any fear of any reprisals, but the ground has now moved.”
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) found that reverend Sylvester Stewart, who was removed from the New Testament Church of God in June for alleged financial impropriety, was an employee of the Church. The EAT ruled that: “The relationship between Church and minister has many of the characteristics of a contract of employment. These cannot be ignored simply because the duties are of a religious or pastoral nature.”
Daniel Barnett, the barrister who represented Stewart, said: “Currently, many Churches use internal procedures such as a church court, but now they will also be accountable to employment tribunals and will be held to the same standards as any other employer.”
Su Morgan, HR director at the Archbishop’s Council, the governing body of the Church of England, said: “The Church may have historically been inconsistent in its approach to good employment practices. There are pockets in any organisation where practice is good and where it is less good. “
But, according to Barlow, the lack of employment practice guidelines from the government is making religious organisations complacent in their attitude to HR.
However, one former member of the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, has managed to get employment issues on the agenda.
David McClean, professor of law at Sheffield University, led a working group which produced The Review of the Clergy Terms of Service report in January 2005. This recommends changing the entire employment culture and updating the concept of “canonical obedience” in line with current HR practices.
Bishops, archdeacons and all other ministers of religion would undergo training in HR management under the review’s proposals.
It also supports giving clergy access to employment tribunals and suggests the Church of England’s Legal Aid Fund could be used to assist with the cost of claims.
Terms and conditions
The General Synod has accepted the review’s recommendations and the relevant legislation is currently being drafted. It is due for first consideration in February 2007.
Morgan said written terms of employment would give the clergy clear rights and manage their expectations.
“We want our clergy to know what is expected of them and give them more clarity about their role, accountability, responsibility and opportunities for development,” she said.
The situation in Scotland is somewhat different, as the Church there operates under a law that gives it the right to govern its own affairs.
The Church of Scotland Act 1921 states that the Church is “subject to no civil authority to legislate… including the right to determine all questions concerning membership and office”. However, this law was overruled last year.
Minister Helen Percy claimed she was the victim of sex discrimination after the Church of Scotland dismissed her for having sexual relations with another minister.
She said the Church “had not taken similar action against male ministers who were known to have had or were having extra-marital sexual relationships”. Last month she allegedly agreed an out-of-court settlement.
It is clear that the Church still has a long way to go before it brings its employment practices into the 21st century. But the Review of the Clergy Terms of Service will certainly make a difference. And however altruistic the Church’s intentions might be, until staff have written contracts, in common with virtually every other UK employee, no Church can claim that it promotes fair employment rights.
The Review of the Clergy Terms of Service recommendations include: ministerial development reviews, detailed statements of conditions of service and maternity and paternity rights.
The report also supports section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, which gives clergy the right not to work on Sundays.
It will put into place mechanisms that foster good practice, including professional HR advice, training, personal development frameworks and performance management procedures.