New legislation has come into effect this week that provides employment rights for the first time for the vast number of Church of England clergy.
The Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009 provides clergy, who are currently defined as 'officeholders' rather than employees, with the right to bring a claim in an Employment Tribunal.
Martin Follett, Registrar of the Diocese of Exeter and Truro and a partner with law firm Michelmores LLP, said:
"Some clergy are subject to conflicting demands from their parishioners on the one hand and their bishop on the other. Most rise to this challenge but inevitably this is not so in some places, and some clergy are suffering. If clergy were employees, the law would provide a structure in which they could raise grievances to have problems resolved internally, or have recourse to Employment Tribunals if they felt they were unfairly treated. But clergy are not employees and don't have these protections. They are office holders and have virtually no rights.
"The Church is responding to this. In the Dioceses of Exeter and Truro we already share an experienced HR person to manage the new relationships and procedures. All clergy will have a statement setting out their individual conditions. A system of appraisal has already started and in-service training will be improved. There will be training for the senior staff who will have to operate the new procedures."
Mr Follett added that the new legislation will be a welcome change for many clergy and will give them the rights most employees take for granted. For others, there is a concern that the Church will become even more managerial and bureaucratic, and the independence and freedom that goes with being an officer holder will be lost.
He added: "There is genuine concern that changing the status of clergy will somehow mean it loses its vocational nature. However, the Church has already successfully introduced new procedures in the Clergy Discipline Measure 2006, which now deals with allegations against clergy, and these are generally thought to have worked well.
"There is no reason why the introduction of new employment rights should fundamentally alter the roles played by the clergy in the future."
An Employment Tribunal between Reverend Mark Sharpe and the Diocese of Worcester was scheduled in February but has been postponed following the submission of new legal evidence.
Rev. Sharpe alleges that he and his family endured four years of torment from parishioners before being forced to leave the rectory at Hanley Broadheath, near Worcester at the end of 2009. His union Unite says he is seeking 'very substantial' damages for unfair dismissal.