Church calls for self-regulation over clergy rights

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

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

The Methodist submission goes on to propose that "appropriateequivalent protection should be agreed between the Church and theDTI, based on comprehensive provisions already contained within theChurch's own Standing Orders. These protections could be backed-upby a comprehensive internal appeals process, together with theoption of an appeal to an external body, for example throughjudicial review or perhaps an independent ecumenical arbitrator, ifit were felt that the procedures were not duly observed."

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

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

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

The Church argues that ministers do not fall under theGovernment's description of "atypical workers" that the DTI wantsto bring under statutory regulation. This is because Methodismcurrently extends to ministers a number of important rights: "TheChurch accepts that it will provide a station (or posting) for theminister, that provision will be made for the housing of his or herfamily, and that a stipend will be provided in order to allow themto follow their calling and serve the church. Even when a ministerretires they still come within the discipline of the Church, andprovision is made for their housing if required and a pension." Ina number of areas, the Church goes beyond statutory rights, forexample on the provision of regular sabbaticals.

"Provisions for maternity leave already exist under Methodistrules, whilst additional provisions for flexible working forparents are being considered. But it is important to focus onrelevant protections - statutory rights around Sunday Tradingprovisions would be rather undesirable for the health of the Sundayservices," said Ms Lampard.

An internal Methodist consultation of ministers and lay peoplefound that two-thirds of respondents were against statutoryprovision, with a third being in favour. A slightly higherproportion of ministers were against an extension of statutoryemployment rights being applied to them.

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

The Methodist Church is governed by the Standing Orders andGuidance contained in the 'Constitutional Practice and Disciplineof the Methodist Church' (CPD). This contains a range ofprotections for ministers, from a thorough disciplinary procedureto provisions for paternity leave.