A vicar who claims he was driven out of his picturesque rural parish is attempting to make legal history by having his complaints against the Church of England heard by an employment tribunal.
The Rev Mark Sharpe alleges he was, in effect, forced to leave his Worcestershire parish after he and his family suffered four years of harassment without support from church leaders.
At a pre-hearing in Birmingham, Sharpe is arguing that he is an employee or worker and his claim for constructive dismissal ought to be heard before a full tribunal.
However, lawyers for the church argue that clergy are “officer holders” rather than employees and not subject to the same laws as workers in most other fields.
The union Unite says that if Sharpe is successful it could pave the way for other members of the clergy to take cases to employment tribunals. It says it has a number of other cases under review and complaints from clergymen and women continue to flow into it.
Sharpe claims the alleged harassment included his dog being poisoned, animal excrement being smeared on his car, his car tyres being slashed and his home phone lines cut.
In addition, he said glass was smashed on the driveway, heating oil was stolen and he was threatened on the rectory’s doorstep by a parishioner.
At one point he said he was even told off for having a beard, despite there being no rule against it and beards being worn by several of his superiors.
He said he and wife, Sara, were forced to install CCTV cameras at the rectory after being plagued by prowlers after moving to Hanley Broadheath in Worcestershire in 2005, with their four children. Sharpe resigned from his post as rector of Teme Valley South, near Tenbury Wells, in September 2009.
At the start of a hearing in Birmingham, Geoffrey Tattersall, acting for the diocese of Worcester, said: “The respondent made an early concession that Sharpe was a worker; we now wish to withdraw that position.”
He warned the judge that the case was “very arcane detailed stuff”, adding: “There is no way of making a complicated case uncomplicated but we are trying to make it as uncomplicated as we can.”
Sharpe, 44, a former policeman and naval chaplain, told the hearing he had assumed that being an officer of the church would provide him the same rights as an employee.
“I can’t say I thought about it at first,” he said. “I think I always assumed it was the same as being an employee.
“I know there was some kind of debate in the church when I joined about it but I didn’t take an active role. I always thought by being ordained at York Minster that was some kind of employment contract.”
Unite has described the parish as “toxic”. It claims that in the wake of the Sharpe case first hitting the headlines it received dozens of calls from members of the clergy complaining at their treatment.
A spokesman for the Church of England said the case turned on whether a priest works under a contract.
The spokesman said: “The Church of England maintains that its parochial clergy are office holders, rather than ‘employees’ or ‘workers’, the terms on which they hold office being laid down by a comprehensive framework of ecclesiastical law, which forms part of the law of England, so that there is no scope, or need, for them to work under a contract.
“Claims for unfair constructive dismissal and whistle-blowing are, therefore, outside the purview of the employment tribunal.”
The spokesman said the diocese and the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, “would, in any case, resist Mr Sharpe’s claims as having no merit”. The diocese has firmly rebutted Sharpe’s claims about his treatment in the parish.
The hearing continues.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010