12 December 2002

Church calls for self-regulation over clergy rights

The Methodist Church is urging the Government to allow a system of self-regulation for the Churches to ensure that the rights of clergy are properly protected.

In a submission to the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) today, Methodist Church officials say that they believe a scheme that "allows for non-statutory protection for Methodist ministers is the preferred way forward. An extension of statutory employment rights to ministers would be unnecessary given the high degree of security that ministers already have."

The Methodist submission goes on to propose that "appropriate equivalent protection should be agreed between the Church and the DTI, based on comprehensive provisions already contained within the Church's own Standing Orders. These protections could be backed-up by a comprehensive internal appeals process, together with the option of an appeal to an external body, for example through judicial review or perhaps an independent ecumenical arbitrator, if it were felt that the procedures were not duly observed."

The submission, which was approved by the Methodist Council last week, argues that secular employment tribunals are inappropriate places to judge cases where a minister has failed to uphold the doctrines of the Church or brought the Church into disrepute.

Ms Rachel Lampard, Methodist Secretary for Parliamentary and Political Affairs and author of the submission, said that "the Church is concerned that the protections it offers are observed, and is committed to ensuring that its procedures conform to natural justice". The Church is examining its own procedures to ensure these are as effective and fair as possible.

In Christian language ministers enter into ministry as a life-long response to a calling from God, and at ordination, the Church and the minister make a life-long covenant to each other. Any move towards statutory employment regulations, from which ministers are currently exempt, would risk undermining this relationship.

The Church argues that ministers do not fall under the Government's description of "atypical workers" that the DTI wants to bring under statutory regulation. This is because Methodism currently extends to ministers a number of important rights: "The Church accepts that it will provide a station (or posting) for the minister, that provision will be made for the housing of his or her family, and that a stipend will be provided in order to allow them to follow their calling and serve the church. Even when a minister retires they still come within the discipline of the Church, and provision is made for their housing if required and a pension." In a number of areas, the Church goes beyond statutory rights, for example on the provision of regular sabbaticals.

"Provisions for maternity leave already exist under Methodist rules, whilst additional provisions for flexible working for parents are being considered. But it is important to focus on relevant protections - statutory rights around Sunday Trading provisions would be rather undesirable for the health of the Sunday services," said Ms Lampard.

An internal Methodist consultation of ministers and lay people found that two-thirds of respondents were against statutory provision, with a third being in favour. A slightly higher proportion of ministers were against an extension of statutory employment rights being applied to them.

There are currently 2,204 active ministers, 1,652 retired ministers and 117 ministers in training in the Methodist Church in Britain. These include Presbyteral ministers and deacons.

The Methodist Church is governed by the Standing Orders and Guidance contained in the 'Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church' (CPD). This contains a range of protections for ministers, from a thorough disciplinary procedure to provisions for paternity leave.

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