A major controversy in recent weeks in British Methodism has involved the case of the Revd Dr Stephen Plant, who was appointed Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Unfortunately, ancient rules mean that appointment is only open to ordained Anglicans, therefore Dr Plant was ordained into the Church of England. Subsequently and inevitably, he had to resign from the Methodist ministry.
This has produced a lot of agony in Methodist circles, with criticisms of both the Anglican and Methodist establishments. I have followed it on the UK Methodists page of Facebook. What, not the Methodist Recorder? Funny you should mention that, because in today’s Recorder, Dr Plant’s friend, the Revd the Lord Griffiths, Superintendent Minister of Wesley’s Chapel in London, has had a potentially explosive letter published in the Recorder, in which he says he is so fed up with much of Methodism that he will effectively resign from it when he retires.
Now, how do you debate that? Look at the Recorder’s own website, to which I linked above. It is primitive. It has been the same for years. It might just have been acceptable in the 1990s, but that website is now an embarrassment. It gives you little more than an outline of this week’s headlines. It is stuck in an age before broadband, where debates would happen on the letters page. And I can tell you from personal experience, even that was slow. The gap between writing a letter and having it published could be four weeks. Press releases suffered a similar time lag. (And the one where I noticed that? It was about a New Media conference!) Four or five years ago, in frustration at this, I gave up subscribing. It coincided with a time when our household finances were tight, and so when they phoned me to ask why I wasn’t renewing my sub, I’m afraid I chickened out of giving them the kind of customer feedback I should have done.
Of course the Recorder is entitled to limit what it publishes online. It seems in this to be allied to Rupert Murdoch’s way of thinking, that if you publish content online you will lose the customer sales on which you depend. However, rather than either setting up online subscriptions as News Corporation have, or publishing interesting material when the print edition had expired a week earlier, it does nothing. Either you shell out for a weekly paper that hasn’t had a significant redesign or even change of font in thirty or forty years, or – well, nothing. It isn’t realistic in an always-on, Internet-everywhere age. You have to offer something.
Take a computing magazine like PC Pro. It reports news items on its website in a timely manner – after all, they will be discussed all over the Internet. However, it only publishes major articles online after the monthly magazine has gone out of date. That seems to be a sensible balance to me. And if using a tech mag as an example seems unrealistic for this debate, just look at how the premier Anglican publication, the Church Times, combines the PC Pro and News Corporation approaches, with some articles available to all surfers and others limited to subscribers.
So I can understand the frustration that controversial Methodist blogger David Hallam must have felt today, knowing this debate was going on, leading to his decision this evening to publish Leslie Griffiths’ letter on his blog. David has been taken to task on Facebook for breaching copyright, and the breach has been reported to the Recorder. Legally, I’m sure that’s quite correct. But it still begs the question about how people expect controversies will be debated today. We have people on Methodism’s Connexional Team who are well versed in contemporary communications methods. But our one and only newspaper is doing a fine impression of the music industry around the time downloading and file sharing became widespread. It’s hoping all this new-fangled stuff will go away. But that isn’t what will disappear. Luddite approaches to technology are what will die.
One thing is for sure in my mind. I’m not about to resubscribe to the Recorder in the foreseeable future. As things stand, the paper is part of Methodism’s past, not her future, and I’ll stick with Facebook, blogs and official emails to get my Methodist news.
Unless, of course, it can change …
This has been hot on Methodist blogs over the last few days: a legal case about whether Methodist ministers should have the same employment protection in law as employees in ordinary jobs. It stems from a case in Cornwall, where a minister called Haley Moore resigned in 2009, but wishes to sue the church for constructive dismissal. However, that is only possible if legally ministers are regarded as employees. In 1984 the courts confirmed the traditional interpretation that we are not, but in recent years a Pentecostal pastor was deemed to have been an employee. Moore has won a ruling that would enable ministers to be considered as employees, but the Methodist Church announced last week it was to appeal against this.
Why does this interest me, and what is at stake?
It doesn’t just interest me, because I am a Methodist minister. My working background before ministry informs my interest. I worked in the Civil Service, and for three years part of my job involved determining whether people were employed or self-employed for National Insurance purposes. There is a range of factors to be considered, because employment status is not determined in the UK by statute but by case-law. So you look for precedent – does someone have a ‘contract of service’ (in which case s/he is an employee) or do they have a ‘contract for services’ (that would make someone self-employed). To illustrate one difference, in a contract of service, that named individual must turn up to perform the tasks, usually at a certain time. In a contract for services, the worker may provide a substitute.
However, ’employed’ and ‘self-employed’ are but two of four employment designations available in British law. The other two are ‘director of a limited company’ (clearly irrelevant here) and ‘office holder’. And that is the crucial category, because that is how ministers have been regarded. Not many jobs or professions are classified as office holders. The only other one that springs to mind is Registrars of Births, Marriages and Deaths. We are office holders, because we are deemed to be engaged by God, not the Church. Hence we do not have employment rights when it comes to issues such as unfair dismissal. The Church claims instead to provide appropriate structures for justice to be done.
My other interest in this case is that for part of my time in the Civil Service, I was a representative of my union in my office. I would say that my first experience of pastoral care was in supporting a colleague whose work was suffering, in explaining to management why her personal situation meant her work was not up to standard for a time. I therefore care about employment rights from that perspective.
Hence, I understand why many of my colleagues are calling for us to be regarded as employees, so that we might be protected in law. There is a feeling in some circles that you cannot always trust the promises of the Church to be fair and just. David Hallam refers to the mistreatment of a minister in his post on this subject, and Tony Buglass alludes to it in the re-invitation system, in his comment on David’s post. I could add to their stories what I know about the way ministers can be the subjects of lies and falsehoods when the question of a re-invitation comes up, and all without redress. I can equally point to stories of the loving pastoral care given by senior ministers, such as Superintendents and Chairs of Districts, in these times.
So you know now why I have an interest in this subject, but I have not yet come to the question I posed about what is at stake. It is here that I find the situation more complex than it first appears.
To be sure, becoming employees would afford us protection. It would be a warning against the low-level defamation of character that infects our Church. I don’t suppose the Church would sign up to the European Working Time Directive, though, which would limit our working hours to forty-eight per week!
And in line with this, there are certain practices the Church has adopted, which have been lifted from the world of employment, and which give us more the character of employees. We are subject to an annual appraisal (now called the Annual Development Review). When we accept a new appointment, we have to assent to a Letter of Understanding, which sets out the broad parameters within which the circuit expects us to work.
However, to confirm employee status would give certain lay leaders more freedom to tell ministers what they should and should not do with their time. I could tell stories from long ago, in a galaxy far, far away of circuit stewards who clearly thought it was their rôle to be the ministers’ managers. We could institutionalise more little Hitlers than we already have.
There is a reason why we are not paid a salary (recompense for our work) but a stipend (a living allowance). The assumption has been that ministers are given enough to live, free from financial worry, so that we can pray and discern what specifically God is calling us to do in the context where we are placed. This is placed within what the Methodist Church calls the ‘covenant’ between the Church and the ministers: that on the one hand ministers will sacrificially and obediently follow Christ in their calling (including where the Church sends us to serve), and that on the other hand the Church will look after us, especially in the light of what we give up in order to do this. Hence the provision of both stipend and manse.
This stipend-covenant relationship would be fatally undermined if we became employees. We would have to be paid a salary, and there would be major questions about the future of the manse system. Whatever the cost of maintaining manses, if they are removed then circuits will have to wait for a minister to buy or rent a property in the area. So much for the continuity of ministry that happens in Methodism, where one minister leaves and another moves in almost immediately. (Some, though, would not see a vacancy as a bad thing: they believe that the current system infantilises congregations by reinforcing dependency.) What both the salary and manse issues boil down to, of course, are money, and that is in short supply at grass-roots level. Hence, this could be a major tension if the courts find in favour of Haley Moore.
Hence I hope you now see why I believe this is not a straightforward issue. There are advantages and disadvantages both to changing to employee status and to retaining office holder status.
Tragically, though, this whole debate and the stories many people could tell that lie behind their comments are a sad commentary on the state of our Church. Behind all of this is a narrative about a lack of trust and a shortage of love. To me, those are the biggest issues here, and the hardest to resolve.