A trio of judges have ruled that because vicars are employed by God, rather than the Church of England, they have no ground to claim unfair dismissal if they lose their job, as in the case of Reverend Mark Sharpe.
Sharpe brought the case after he was, it is claimed, forced out of his Hanley Broadheath parish by locals, which he compared to the characters from British television comedy The League of Gentlemen. In the programme, with often has elements of horror and black humour, an insular, incestuous, and murderous community conspire together to keep outsiders away and resist change.
The former vicar said of his experience in the Worcestershire village: “This is a local parish for local people – that is the attitude. When I arrived here, I held a lunch for the church wardens of all six churches.
“At the end of the lunch, one of the wardens, Sally Jones, boasted that they didn’t get on with the previous rector so they ‘chewed him up and spat him out’.”
The vicar claimed the campaign of harassment against him and his family included having excrement smeared on his car, which also had its tyres slashed, that he was the victim of theft, that his dog was murdered, and that he had the telephone line to his home cut.
Sharpe claimed the Church of England should have warned him of the unhappy parishioners before his arrived, and given him extra support in his ministry.
The Independent newspaper reports the comments of the judges who made the remarkable ruling on the case, as Lady Justice Arden, Lord Justice David and Lord Justice Lewison ruled because Sharpe was a servant of God rather than the church, he was “neither a party to a contract of employment, not a worker”.
Although Sharpe will no doubt be disappointed with the outcome of his four-year court battle, his former boss the Bishop Worcester was reportedly delighted at the ruling, which confirmed the divine work of Church of England Priests. He said: “To become employees, clergy would lose the freedoms which are at the heart of the Church’s ministry and this is not something that they want to give up.
“It is regrettable that Unite fails to understand the context in which parish clergy exercise their ministry whilst the Church seeks to uphold the freedoms enjoyed by its clergy”.