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When your employer is God, expect an unholy mess


We all develop our own ideas of whether an employer is a good employer or a bad employer. But what happens when your employer is God?

Clergy in the Church of England are legally said to be employees of God, which leaves them without redress to Employment Law when something happens which doesn't seem to be fair treatment.

The situation is highlighted in the case of the Rev. Ray Owen, a 62-year-old former member of the the team ministry in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. Rev. Owen has been effectively dismissed from his post as a team rector, with the reason being given by his bishop as "the parish benefitting from a change of leadership". The Rev. Owen has been offered no other position, has had his "pay" stopped, his pensionable service removed and has been issued with eviction notices to quit the church-owned property that he has known as home for eight years.

Once upon a time, clergy were inducted as "incumbents for life" in a "living", where they were seetled into a freehold of a benefice or parish.

Pressure on Church of England funds in recent years, particularly following a 1980s scandal where millions of pounds were lost in property speculation, have meant that there is a reducing financial support from the Church central funding towards the cost of clergy. Seeing, the need to rationalise staff, many bishops have taken to employing clergy on what are effectively short-term unspecified duration contracts. In the case of the Rev Owen, an eight year short-term contract.

The Rev. Owen's departure from the Hanley ministry took place under a code of conduct for group and team ministries agreed by the Church's governing body, the General Synod, in 1996. Under that system, his position was reviewed by a group of lay people from the parish and two team vicars who were technically the Rev. Owen's juniors. There is no requirement for the review team to have expertise or experience in human resource management or in managing other people. The review group decided that they wanted a change of leadership, a recommendation that they passed to the Bishop of Stafford, the Right Rev. Christopher Hill, who decided not to renew the Rev. Owen's contract. There is no right of appeal for the Rev Owen. Redundancy terms are not an official part of the process.

The Church does not formally recognise any Clergy trade union in a standard employer/employee relationship.

The Rev. Owen has now won leave for a judicial review of the Bishop of Stafford's decision, and has been granted legal aid to pursue the case. The hearing, likely to be listed in the Court of Appeal, is likely to prove both embarassing and costly for the church if the Rev. Owen wins the case.

The case opens a whole can of worms relating to Church treatment of clergy, legal protection for clergy, the right of clergy to claim employment law rights, management of clergy and much more. What do you think the issues are here?


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