Court settles 13-year fight between congregations

The Free Church of Scotland used a Baptist church hall. Picture: Robert Perry
The Free Church of Scotland used a Baptist church hall. Picture: Robert Perry
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A BATTLE for the ownership of a church building between two congregations has finally been settled more than a decade after the bitter dispute started.

For the past 13 years, the Free Church of Scotland (FCS) has been attempting to wrest back ownership of Partick Free Church in Glasgow from the Free Church of Scotland Continuing (FCC), which claimed ownership of the property, manse and halls following a schism within the Free Kirk in 2000.

But the Court of Session has now declared that Partick Free Church of Scotland congregation are the lawful owners of all disputed properties at the Crow Road address.

The schism, which followed a fallout over a court case involving the then principal of Free Church College in Edinburgh, saw acrimonious disputes between the two groups across Scotland over the rightful ownership of church properties, some of which remain unsettled to this day.

Among the contested buildings was Partick Free Church, whose then minister had joined the FCC along with a significant percentage of the congregation and claimed rightful ownership of the properties.

The remaining FCS congregation rented the neighbouring Baptist church hall and used it as their place of worship while the wrangle between the two faiths continued.

A Free Kirk spokesman said of the drawn-out dispute: “We are very thankful and relieved that the Partick Free Church congregation will finally be back in their own church building, as they have effectively been homeless for more than a decade.

“It is remarkable that the Partick Free Church congregation has been able to maintain such an effective witness during such a prolonged period of trouble and uncertainty.

“Although the Free Church congregation has strived for peaceful and amicable discussions with the FCC and has made a number of previous offers to settle the dispute, we realise the spectacle of Christians fighting has been damaging to the cause of Christ, and this is a reason for great sorrow.

“We earnestly hope that we can now put this issue behind us and move on to better things.”

The Free Church of Scotland also said it had made an ex-gratia payment of £50,000 to the FCC as “a gesture of goodwill”, adding: “This is considerably less than previous offers made by the Free Church of Scotland in an attempt to avert legal action.”

However, in a statement released yesterday by the FCC’s legal advice and property committee, the church contested the Free Kirk’s assertion that the legal action came about because of an unwillingness to negotiate.

“This is not the case,” it said. “The legal action was raised in 2008 without any meaningful attempt by the FCS side to reach a settlement by negotiation.

“Subsequent attempts to prevent the matter being decided at law were unsuccessful because of the refusal of the FCS congregation to negotiate in a way which recognised the needs of both congregations and the moral claim of the FCC congregation – the larger of the two parties in 2000 – to a reasonable share of the property and funds.”

The FCC said the FCS had only agreed to a half share of the funds in bank accounts that had been frozen during the dispute, which it claimed was “equivalent to no more than 7 per cent of the total value of congregational assets and property”.

Describing the situation as “a sadness”, the statement added: “It was this failure to negotiate in a true Christian spirit (unlike other congregations) that made it impossible for the FCC congregation to accept the arrangement in question.”

The FCC said the £50,000 would be used to offset the legal costs, and that the congregation had now moved to Broomhill Community Church, which they will begin using this Sunday.