Court settles long running Free Church dispute

25 August 2011

A court has ruled to end a feud between rival factions in the Free Church. After a long running dispute over who had the rights to occupy church property, including Churches and Manses in Skye, the ruling will have implications for the Free Church across Scotland, and has no doubt thrown up interesting issues for conveyancers too.
The split occurred in 2000 following allegations of improper conduct by a Professor at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh. The allegations were not upheld by the General Assembly and subsequently the professor in question was proposed as a Principal of the college. This further fuelled the divide and caused an opposition group to form against the actions of the General Assembly. During further debates over the behaviour of the dissenters, 22 ministers and a selection of the congregation broke away from the Free Church of Scotland and declared they were the Free Church (Continuing), and based on their beliefs they alone were the legitimate Free Church, with all those left being ‘residual’ and that those left had departed so far from the constitution that they were no longer the true Free Church. Importantly, they believed they had a right to occupy Church property, including the manses. They tried, and failed, in 2005 to obtain a declarator from the court of their entitlement to property that was held centrally with the Free Church of Scotland, with Lady Paton saying they had no claim and dismissing the action. This latest case is effectively a sequel to that case, where the Free Church of Scotland aimed to claim rights over Church property, this time that which was held in trust for the congregation at Broadford, Skye, which the Free Church (Continuing) were claiming absolute rights to and in the case of one of the manses, occupying. Subsequently, the defenders, the Free Church (Continuing) were also joined by other Skye congregations who had also split as defenders to the action.
It was pointed out that the Free Church of Scotland had never relinquished their rights to these properties and both were following the original principles of the church – they both were pursuing the same aims and ideology. In this respect, there was nothing but an artificial divide involving disagreements between individuals. Other case law was looked at, highlighting the issue that where church property was held in trust for the congregation, the views of the majority of that congregation would prevail. The case turned on the terms of the feu charter in the original trust deed, clearly granting title to The Free Church of Scotland. Whilst this was indisputable, with the Free Church of Scotland winning the case, Lord Drummond Young tried to further diffuse the situation, which he stated came down to personal differences, by respectfully suggesting that the Free Church of Scotland could, in the spirit of Christian charity, share the building with other Christian denominations. There was nothing in the trust deed that prevented this. So, whilst legally they were the owners entitled to all the church property, the simple suggestion of sharing will hopefully be listened to by both parties.


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