The Supreme Court has finally given its ruling on the matter of The President of the Methodist Conference v Preston. To cut a long story short, the court has ruled that Methodist ministers are not employees.
The full judgement of the court can be found here (PDF). I found it to be interesting reading (while waiting for a train at Vauxhall station) and was impressed with the court’s grasp of the complexities of the Constitutional Practice and Disicpline of the Methodist Church (CPD), our ‘rule book’. Indeed, this was the key to the verdict; the court determined that the case had to be decided on the basis of the precise provisions for ministers in CPD and whether this constituted an employment contract, and felt that the Employment Appeals Tribunal had failed to do this. The Supreme Court felt that the ‘covenant relationship’ set out in CPD, which assumes that Methodist ministry is an office for life (for example, ministers can only resign with the permission of the Methodist Conference and even after ‘retirement’ are still expected to serve to the best of their capacity) and pays not a wage but provides a manse and stipend, is not intended to form a contractual relationship.
Because the court based its decision on a close scrutiny of MethodistChurch procedures, it recognised that its decision might not be applicable to Ministers of Religion in other denominations. But as regards the MethodistChurch, it has clearly spoken.
Reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Methodist discussion groups have been mixed, but there is a sense of ‘where does this leave us now’? There will undoubtedly be a collective sigh of relief amongst the Connexional Team, not just because the status quo has been supported, but also because there had been criticism about the cost of taking the case to the Supreme Court. Although Methodist Conference meets soon, I guess that there is insufficient time to do the court ruling justice and it will probably be up to the Methodist Council to work out the consequences. Because the reason that Ms Preston took the case to an Employment Tribunal in the first place still exists; that she felt her situation had not been properly heard by the church. The Methodist Church is going to have to look afresh at its practices and in particular what kind of tribunal or arbitration is available to presbyters and deacons who have a dispute with the church.