An interesting first instance judgement was handed down by the Birmingham Employment Tribunal on 9th January 2023 in the case of McCalla v Lichfield Diocesan Board of Finance Inc (1) and Bishop of Lichfield (2).  The claim brought by Ms McCalla contended that the Respondents had subjected her to unlawful discrimination in circumstances where, as a practicing Christian, she had entered into the Discernment of Vocations process within the Church of England in February 2016 which had concluded in June 2021 but as a result of which she was not permitted to go forward for ordination.

It was the Claimant’s contention that in supervising the arrangements for the process of discernment the Church authorities and the Bishop of Lichfield were acting in the role of an employment service provider within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.

In order to succeed the Claimant needed to persuade the Tribunal that in the circumstances which had given rise to her claim she could be deemed an applicant for employment the particular employment being that of a “personal office” and further that the Respondents did indeed act in the role of “employment service provider” and, assuming all of the above to have been answered in the affirmative, whether or not, in the particular circumstances of her case, she had suffered unlawful discrimination.

Following developments at the hearing the only matters which the Tribunal was required to determine were whether or not either Respondent, acting as an employment service provider, discriminated against the Claimant.

The Tribunal considered the constituent elements of the discernment process and measured these against the definition of employment service set out in the 2010 Act.

In so doing, the Tribunal noted that aspects of the discernment process were similar to those that might be deployed in a recruitment exercise within a typical employment context.  However, it noted also that the process importantly also encompassed an individuals spiritual vocation to ministry in the Church of England and the Respondents contention that, primarily, ordained ministry was a spiritual calling and not an occupation or career.

It went on to note that the emphasis in the context of the discernment process on the aspect of a “calling” which is a prerequisite requirement and considered that a calling to Holy Orders cannot be equated to a job as it is something that involves the whole person and the whole of that person’s life.

Having compared and contrasted the discernment process with the services ordinarily provided by an employment service provider and, indeed, the ordinary concept of employment itself, the Tribunal ruled that on a correct analysis the discernment process involved the identification of a spiritual vocation or calling to God and was not to be equated to a trade occupation or a personal office within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.

Further, the Tribunal concluded that although aspects of the discernment process might bear similarities to features also to be found in an employment context, that did not alter the fundamental nature of the former process.  Neither did the fact that, at some stage, a person undergoing the discernment process might become an employee or indeed hold public office within the Church of England alter the correct characterisation of the process as the discernment of a spiritual vocation.

The claim was accordingly dismissed.