It has passed judgments affecting multimillionaires, multinational banks and MPs but now Britain’s highest court has made clear that it does not have jurisdiction over God.
By John Bingham
The Supreme Court ruled that a former Methodist minister could not sue the church for unfair dismissal because, rather than being an employee, she was viewed as a “steward in the household of God."
It found that even though the Rev Hayley Preston had been paid and housed by the Methodist church during her ministry, her relationship with it was essentially of “spiritual character” putting her outside the remit of normal employment law.
Mrs Preston served as a Superintendent Minister in Redruth, Cornwall, until her position was summarily abolished in an amalgamation in 2009.
She attempted to take the church to an employment tribunal but it ruled that it could not take the case on because she did not have a normal contract of employment and was therefore not an employee.
She overturned that decision at the Court of Appeal in 2011, which ruled that the arrangement she had with the church, which included a stipend and the use of manse, amounted to legally binding obligations akin to a contract.
But the church took the case to the Supreme Court arguing that viewing her ministry as simply a job ignored its rules which class Methodists ministers as having a “covenant relationship” with the church outside the bounds of a normal employer-employee relationship.
When Methodist ministers are ordained they become part of the “full connexion”, which means they will be posted to different parts of the country – in a way similar to overseas missionaries rather than traditional clergy – and cannot resign unilaterally.
Delivering the leading judgment, Lord Sumption said the case echoed disputes dating back more than a century over whether the status of clergy as “servants of God” meant they were not also employees and therefore entitled to benefits.
A series of previous cases found that Anglican clergy, Rabbis and Presbyterian ministers can be treated as employees but Lord Sumption said the rules of each particular church had to be borne in mind.
“Neither the stipend nor the manse are regarded by the Methodist Church as the consideration for the services of its ministers,” he said.
“They regard them as a method of providing the material support to the minister without which he or she could not serve God.
“In the Church’s view, the sale of a minister’s services in a labour market would be objectionable, as being incompatible with the spiritual character of their ministry.”
In a dissenting judgment baroness Hale disagreed with four other Justices insisting: “Everything about this arrangement looks contractual.”
The Rev Gareth Powell, Assistant Secretary of the Methodist Conference, said: “The judgment of the Supreme Court has determined that an employment tribunal does not have jurisdiction over Methodist ministers.
“It sets out very clearly the nature of the relationship that exists and that such a relationship is defined by the Standing Orders of the Conference.
“It is important that the we read the judgment with great care as we continue to ensure that our practices reflect the calling of the Church.”
SoRo: This is a similar ruling to the unanimous ruling of the US Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Obama administration had argued that the Federal government could dictate employment decisions to religious institutions. Fortunately, ALL nine justices recognised the egregious violation of the First Amendment that this argument was. If the Obama administration had prevailed, a synagogue could have been sued for discrimination, for example, if it did not allow Christians, Muslims or atheists to apply for the position of rabbi. There is over 200 years of caselaw that is holds that the state may NOT interfere with the internal workings of religious institutions or with church doctrine.