The Worcestershire rector, who suffered a four year-long campaign of harassment, has won his employment appeal tribunal, which will have big implications for the way that the Church of England (CoE) treats its clergy.
Unite, the country’s largest union which represented Rev Mark Sharpe, hailed the decision as ‘a great victory for the advancement of employment rights of Church of England clergy’ and called for the church authorities to enter into ‘a constructive, open and honest dialogue’ on the issues that decision has raised.
The background to the case rests on how Rev Sharpe, his wife Sara and their four children endured a campaign of intimidation from parishioners when they moved to the rectory in remote Worcestershire in 2005 until they left in 2009.
Unite had argued Rev Sharpe was an employee of the church when he sought redress for the loss of his job, however the Church of England contended that he was ‘an office holder’ and therefore not covered by current employment rights legislation.
Today’s (Thursday 28 November) decision by Mrs Justice Cox says, in essence, that Rev Sharpe’s working arrangements included all of the key elements of a contract to allow the working relationship to be construed so that Rev Sharpe was an employee.
This now opens the way for a further employment tribunal to investigate the substantive issues that he had to endure while rector at Hanley Broadheath, near Worcester.
Unite national officer Rachael Maskell said: “This is a very welcome decision that vindicates Mark’s brave stand over the last eight years, not only in ministering to his parish, but fighting for compensation after he unfairly lost his job.
“Unite calls on the Church of England to enter into a constructive and open dialogue with us to ensure that Mark is properly compensated and, on the wider issue, of how employment rights for CoE clergy can be enshrined into the church’s employment practices.
“Our door is open for discussions to bring the employment rights of the clergy into the modern age, as they have been unchanged since the Church of England was set up by Henry VIII in the 1530s.”
Rev Sharpe said: “This decision has come as an immense relief. I never intended to set out on this journey, but I was forced down this route in order to seek recompense for my family and I.
“I feel vindicated by the stand that Unite has taken on my behalf and hope to move to a swift resolution of the outstanding issues with the church, so that I can move forward to the next chapter of my life.”
The campaign of harassment included the tyres to Rev Sharpe’s car being slashed twice; the poisoning of a pet dog; the theft of central heating oil three times; his family being sworn at; his post being tampered with: and his internet and phone connections being cut. Because of constant prowlers, CCTV cameras were installed at the rectory.
Unite has been negotiating a settlement for Rev Sharpe, who has been off sick with stress since April 2006. His case rested on the fact that the church should have warned him of the nature of the parish and its problems before offering him the post.
Unite, which has 2,500 faith worker members, has consistently said that the Church of England needs to introduce the full range of employment rights for its entire clergy under the provisions of Section 23 of the 1999 Employment Relations Act.
Unite director of legal services Howard Beckett said: “We would like to offer thanks to Stephen Pinder of EAD solicitors, Unite’s panel solicitors. This is another example of the support Unite Legal Services offer to members. No one could possibly take on a case of this magnitude and complexity with all the costs involved without the help from the union’s legal services.
“The support offered by Unite Legal Services once again underlines the importance of union membership.”
For further information please contact: Rachael Maskell, Unite national officer on 07768 693933 and/or Unite senior communications officer Shaun Noble on 07768 693940
The Revd Sharpe is not well enough to give interviews.
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- Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.