Disputes about the employment status of ministers of religion have been coming before the courts for over a century, since the introduction of national insurance. The determination of the issue is complicated by the spiritual nature of their work and the complex structures within which they operate.
The first hurdle for most ministers is establishing that they are engaged under a contract. Traditionally, two presumptions stood in their way. Firstly, that ministers of religion were office holders who did not serve under a contract of employment. Secondly, that their spiritual roles were not intended to be legally binding.
In Preston the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the issue can no longer be resolved by reference to these traditional presumptions. Rather, the primary considerations are the manner in which the minister is engaged and the character of the rules or terms governing their service. However, the spiritual character of the duties is an important part of the context.
The majority concluded that there was no contract in place between the parties. The mere fact that the arrangement included remuneration, accommodation and assigned duties was not sufficient to resolve the issue. The arrangement had to be construed within the framework of the rules and practices of the church.
Lady Hale disagreed. Everything about Ms Preston’s appointment looked contractual. It was a very specific arrangement for a particular post, at a particular time, with a particular manse and a particular stipend, and with a particular set of responsibilities.
The trend in recent years has been to extend employment rights to ministers of religion. This decision goes against that grain.
But, although the outcome in Preston is contrary to Percy, it doesn’t represent a departure from its legal principles. The traditional presumptions referred to in Preston had already been laid to rest by the House of Lords in Percy.
The outcomes differ because the facts do. In Percy, Lord Nicholls appears to endorse the decision in Parfitt – that the arrangements of the Methodist church do not give rise to a legally binding contract with their ministers. Lord Sumption considered the facts of Parfitt to be indistinguishable from Preston.
The practical guidance from Lord Sumption is to examine the rules and practices of the particular church and any specific arrangements made with the minister. In other words, approach the issue as you would any exercise of contractual construction.
Clearly Preston (together with Parfitt) will be a vital resource for anyone who happens to represent a Methodist minister or president in the future. Of slightly wider application is the indication that a lifelong agreement, with no unilateral right to resign, is inconsistent with the existence of a contract of employment. But that’s hardly surprising, is it?
|The President of the Methodist Conference v Preston  UKSC 29
|Percy v National Mission of the Church of Scotland  2 AC 28
|The President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt  ICR 176