Here’s the scenario. The Rev Mark Sharpe attempted to take his bishop to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal. So far so good. However, things get more complicated, and a lot more expensive, one imagines. Because not one, not two, but three senior judges wanted a piece of the action. Lady Justice Arden, Lord Justice Lewison, and Lord Justice Arden ruled that the Rev Sharpe was fresh out of luck. He was employed by God not his bishop and was ‘neither a party to a contract of employment, nor a worker.’
This means that the former rector was never employed by the Church, so couldn’t be dismissed. He was an ‘office holder.’ I’m not fully conversant with this as an idea, but clerics have a ‘tenure’ allowing them more autonomy than normal employees have.
This is the best bit. In order to justify their decision, the judges cited some pretty hairy sources. In chronological order, these included the upheaval in the Holy Roman Church in the 11th century, bits of the Magna Carta, and the spats between Henry II and Thomas Beckett. You can’t say they didn’t do their homework, can you?
Interesting that three modern day judges should rule not to overthrow what is effectively a tradition that the clergy are owners of their parishes. It all seems remarkably old fashioned to me. By that token you could say a sales rep owns his patch, and is not employed by the company he works for because he has autonomy to work his patch as he sees fit. I think that might raise a few eyebrows if a company tried to use that as a defence in court when they sack some poor hapless staff member.
Mind you, British jurisprudence, in common with that of lots of other countries, is full of quirks. It is, for example, illegal ‘wilfully and wantonly to disturb people by ringing their doorbells or knocking at their doors.’ You can’t order or permit a servant to stand on a windowsill in order to clean the window. Did you know that you need permission from the Secretary of State to enter the hull of the Titanic? Or that queue jumping in a ticket office on the Tube is illegal under a bye-law?
Sadly, the hoary old story about it being legal to shoot with a longbow any Welshman within the city walls of Chester is a myth.