A former cop-cum-vicar who claims he was the victim of a four-year campaign of hate is at the centre of a Court of Appeal battle over whether he has the legal right to bring an action for unfair dismissal.
The Rev Mark Sharpe says he was driven out of his parish in Worcestershire after his dog was poisoned, his car tyres slashed and his post tampered with.
His trade union Unite is backing his case and says it is seeking a landmark decision which could lead to all faith workers “finally being awarded basic employment rights”.
Mr Sharpe, a former police dog handler who left the police after being bitten by his dog, next became a Royal Navy Chaplain but left that because of objections to hard core porn watched by naval ratings – he later sued the Ministry of Defence and won a sexual discrimination case.
Then he joined a rural parish from which the current case comes. Mr Sharpe, who was in court today, resigned from his post as vicar at Hanley Broadheath near Worcester in 2009 and launched a constructive unfair dismissal claim against the Church of England (CoE).
The case has reached the appeal court after tribunals split over whether he could legally be categorised as an “employee” or a “worker”.
Mr Sharpe argues he is employed by the Bishop of Worcester and therefore entitled to protection by legislation, including the 1996 Employment Rights Act.
The CoE maintains he is not an employee but a “religious office holder” under ecclesiastical law.
Initially the CoE view prevailed, and an Employment Tribunal (ET) ruled that he was neither an employee nor a worker and blocked his unfair dismissal claim.
But the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) overturned the ET decision in November 2013 and said it had misapplied the law and ordered a complete rehearing of Mr Sharpe’s case before a fresh tribunal.
Today Thomas Linden QC, representing the CoE and the bishop, urged three appeal judges – Lady Justice Arden, Lord Justice Davis and Lord Justice Lewison – to rule it was the EAT that had erred.
Mr Linden said a central question the court had to decide was whether there was a contract governing the services of Mr Sharpe as a clergyman, and – if there was one – what was its nature.
Mr Linden submitted: “If there was a contract, its nature was not employment.”
He said: “Something more than an appointment to office is needed if a contract is to be established.
“Clearly Parliament intended that those who were appointed as (church) benefice holders should be subjected to the ecclesiastical law framework.
“It would be surprising if at the same time Parliament intended that there was another result, namely that they gained employment rights enforceable by employment tribunals and the county court, and so on.”
Mr Sharpe moved to Hanley Broadheath, near Worcester, with his wife and four children in 2005, but stepped down in September 2009 saying he had developed health problems as a result of a campaign of harassment.
His constructive unfair dismissal claim is based on the argument that the Church should have warned him of the nature of the parish and its problems and offered him better support and protection when the harassment began.
Sally Kosky, Unite national officer, said: “It is deeply disappointing that the Church of England has gone to such lengths to avoid its responsibility as an employer.
“It cannot be that on the one hand the church takes huge strides forward on gender equality, yet on the other remains in the dark ages on fundamental employment rights.
“There is much at stake here, not only for Mark, but many other faith workers who are unable to seek justice for unfair treatment.”