The Age reports…
“The Uniting Church is forging ahead with the sale of $100 million worth of property to pay off its debts despite a former County Court judge and one of Australia’s most experienced barristers warning it that this would be illegal.
The church resolved in May to sell churches, vacant land and church homes to recover debts of about $36 million it lost after the collapse of its school, Acacia College, last year. Twenty-one churches are to be auctioned next Wednesday.
The church said money from the sale would also recover $7.32 million in risk management reserves and ”provide liquidity for ministries across the synod to an amount of $10 million”.
The church’s governing body, the Synod Standing Committee, held a meeting on Thursday night to hear retired County Court judge Ross Howie’s legal advice on the sale.
Mr Howie … previously led a successful fight against the sale of St Stephen’s Uniting Church in Williamstown North, of which he is a member, and later sought pro bono advice from well-respected barrister, Allan Myers, QC, and law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler about plans to sell other churches.
He told the committee that the sale would be unlawful without church congregations’ approval and said: ”I think that what you are doing is wrong; ethically wrong and destructive of the church.”
The Uniting Church’s general secretary, Reverend Dr Mark Lawrence, wrote to all the church’s ministers and secretaries on Friday, saying it would sell the properties to pay down debt and develop reserves: ”The standing committee gave careful thought to the presentation and, after hearing advice from synod legal advisers, resolved to continue with the current process.”
The church was formed under the Uniting Church in Australia Act, which states that church property is held in a trust for the benefit of congregations. The law says that the committee must seek their consent before selling their property, unless ”special circumstances” exist.
Mr Myers said in his memorandum of advice: ”These conditions could be met if a congregation ceased to exist or became unviable or financially dysfunctional. But they were not met in the present case.”
The only reason the church did not seek worshippers’ approval ”in the ordinary way” was because it was worried they would refuse.
Citing a committee report, he said the church had secured its debt with a charge over three of its cash reserves, but preferred not to use them.
Mr Howie said at Thursday’s meeting that if the committee had asked worshippers to help the church pay its debt, while accepting responsibility for its mistakes, they would have agreed: ”But you are not asking. You are saying, ‘We are taking your property, whether you agree or not, and while we are about it, we will take an extra $17.32 million, just because we can’.”
But Dr Lawrence said that extra money from the sale would ”go directly into care and transition for congregation members. None of that money will be kept by the synod.
”The mission reserves are used across the life of the church and that was a significant factor (in the decision to sell properties) rather than using them to address the debt, because funding for ministers and some congregation ministry and synod ministry would be curtailed,” he said.
Dr Lawrence said that about 400 people – equally lay and ordained – had decided to sell church properties: ”The vast majority of people at the meeting are not employed by the synod. [They are] in the life of congregations.”
He said they had considered whether the church had enough money to fund legal representation in potential legal challenges as part of their decision.”