Preston (formerly Moore) v President of the Methodist Conference

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtSupreme Court
JudgeLord Wilson,Lord Carnwath,Lord Sumption
Judgment Date15 May 2013
Neutral Citation[2013] UKSC 29
Date15 May 2013

[2013] UKSC 29


Easter Term

On appeal from: [2011] EWCA Civ 1581


Lord Hope, Deputy President

Lady Hale

Lord Wilson

Lord Sumption

Lord Carnwath

The President of the Methodist Conference


Dinah Rose QC

Oliver Hyams

Emma Dixon

(Instructed by Pothecary Witham Weld)


John Bowers QC

Mark Hill QC

James Bax

(Instructed by Nalders LLP)

Heard on 13 and 14 February 2013

Lord Sumption (with whom Lord Wilson and Lord Carnwath agree)


The Respondent, Haley Anne Preston (formerly Moore), a Minister in the Redruth Circuit of the Methodist Church until 2009, wishes to prosecute a claim against the Church in an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. Under section 94 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, only an employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed. Section 230 uncontroversially defines an employee as someone who has entered into or works under a contract of service or apprenticeship. The question at issue on this appeal is whether Ms Preston was an employee. The tribunal held that she was not. That decision was, however, reversed by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in a decision subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal.

The current state of the authorities

Disputes about the employment status of ministers of religion have been coming before the courts ever since the introduction of national insurance in 1911 made it necessary to classify them for the first time. There is now a substantial body of authority on the point, much of it influenced by relatively inflexible tests borne of social instincts which came more readily to judges of an earlier generation than they do in the more secular and regulated context of today. Until recently, ministers of religion were generally held not to be employees.


Two recurrent themes can be found in the case-law.


The first is the distinction between an office and an employment. Broadly speaking, the difference is that an office is a position of a public nature, filled by successive incumbents, whose duties were defined not by agreement but by law or by the rules of the institution. A beneficed clergyman of the Church of England is, or was until recent measures modified the position, the paradigm case of a religious office-holder. But at an early stage curates in the Church of England were recognised as having the same status for this purpose: see In re Employment of Church of England Curates [1912] 2 Ch 563. The position of other ministers was taken to be analogous. In Scottish Insurance Commissioners v Church of Scotland (1914) SC 16, which concerned an assistant minister in the United Free Church of Scotland, Lord Kinnear said at 23 that the status of an assistant minister "is not that of a person who undertakes work defined by contract but of a person who holds an ecclesiastical office, and who performs the duties of that office subject to the laws of the Church to which he belongs and not subject to the control and direction of any particular master." In Diocese of Southwark v Coker [1998] ICR 140, the Court of Appeal held that a stipendiary assistant curate was not an employee. They held that his duties were derived from his priestly status and not from any contract. Both Mummery LJ (at 147) and Staughton LJ (at 150) considered that there was a presumption that ministers of religion were office-holders who did not serve under a contract of employment.


The second theme is a tendency to regard the spiritual nature of a minister of religion"s calling as making it unnecessary and inappropriate to characterise the relationship with the church as giving rise to legal relations at all. In Rogers v Booth [1937] 2 All ER 751, 754, Sir Wilfred Green MR, delivering the judgment of the Court of Appeal, held that membership of the Salvation Army gave rise to a relationship "pre-eminently of a spiritual character" which was not intended to give rise to legal relations. More recently, in Davies v Presbyterian Church of Wales [1986] 1 WLR 323, the House of Lords held that the mere fact that a relationship founded on the rules of a church was non-contractual did not mean that that there were no legally enforceable obligations at all. But they were inclined to find those obligations in the law of trusts, and adhered to the familiar distinction between an employment and a religious vocation. At p 329, Lord Templeman, with whom the rest of the committee agreed, said:

"My Lords, it is possible for a man to be employed as a servant or as an independent contractor to carry out duties which are exclusively spiritual. But in the present case the applicant cannot point to any contract between himself and the church. The book of rules does not contain terms of employment capable of being offered and accepted in the course of a religious ceremony. The duties owed by the pastor to the church are not contractual or enforceable. A pastor is called and accepts the call. He does not devote his working life but his whole life to the church and his religion. His duties are defined and his activities are dictated not by contract but by conscience. He is the servant of God. If his manner of serving God is not acceptable to the church, then his pastorate can be brought to an end by the church in accordance with the rules. The law will ensure that a pastor is not deprived of his salaried pastorate save in accordance with the provisions of the book of rules but an industrial tribunal cannot determine whether a reasonable church would sever the link between minister and congregation. The duties owed by the church to the pastor are not contractual. The law imposes on the church a duty not to deprive a pastor of his office which carries a stipend, save in accordance with the procedures set forth in the book of rules."


President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt [1984] QB 368 was a decision of the Court of Appeal on a claim for unfair dismissal by a Methodist minister. It is therefore directly in point on the present appeal. The Court held that the minister was not an employee, but the reasons of its members differed. Dillon LJ considered the spiritual character of the Methodist ministry to be fundamental to constitution and standing orders of the Methodist Church, but he reached the conclusion by an analysis of their terms. He does not appear to have been influenced by the distinction between an office and an employment, and regarded the earlier authorities as of no assistance. May LJ, on the other hand, adopted the analysis of the dissenting judgment of Waterhouse J in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, who had considered that the spiritual character was in itself inconsistent with the existence of a contractual relationship. Sir John Donaldson MR agreed with both judgments.


The leading modern case in this area is the decision of the House of Lords in Percy v Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland [2006] 2 AC 28. The Appellant was an associate minister in a parish of the Church of Scotland, who wished to bring a sex discrimination claim against the Church. It was accepted that she did not have a contract of service. But the statutory test of "employment" for the purposes of sex discrimination claims is broader than the test for unfair dismissal claims. Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, it extended to those who "contract personally to execute any work or labour." Ms Percy claimed to come within that category. In spite of the difference between the tests for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination, the House took the opportunity to revisit both of the themes which had featured in the authorities to date on the question whether a minister was employed under a contract of service.


The leading speech for the majority was delivered by Lord Nicholls, with whom Lord Scott and Baroness Hale agreed. Lord Nicholls regarded office-holding as an unsatisfactory criterion, at any rate on its own, for deciding whether a person was employed. The concept is clear enough but the boundaries are not, except in the case of holders of a small number of offices which have long been recognised as such by the common law, such as constables and beneficed clergymen of the Church of England. Moreover, offices and employments are not always mutually exclusive categories. A contract of employment is capable of subsisting side by side with many of the characteristics of an office. It followed that the classification of a minister"s occupation as an office was no more than one factor in a judgment that depended on all the circumstances. Turning to the spiritual character of a minister"s calling, Lord Nicholls recognised its relevance but pointed out that it could not be conclusive. At paras 23–25, he said:

"23. There are indeed many arrangements or happenings in church matters where, viewed objectively on ordinary principles, the parties cannot be taken to have intended to enter into a legally-binding contract. The matters relied upon by Mr Parfitt in President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt [1984] QB 368 are a good example of this. The nature of the lifelong relationship between the Methodist Church and a minister, the fact that he could not unilaterally resign from the ministry, the nature of his stipend, and so forth, all these matters made it impossible to suppose that any legally-binding contract came into being between a newly-ordained minister and the Methodist Church when he was received into full connection. Similarly with the Church"s book of rules relied on by the Reverend Colin Davies in Davies v Presbyterian Church of Wales [1986] I WLR 323. Then the rebuttable presumption enunciated by the Lord President in the present case, following Mummery LJ's statements of principle in Diocese of Southwark v Coker [1998] ICR 140, 147, may have a place. Without more, the nature of the mutual obligations, their...

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