44. SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES – REGULATION 4.6.3 (Allan Thompson and Geoffrey Grinton)

That the Assembly

authorise the Standing Committee, on the advice of the Legal Reference Committee, to amend the Regulations relating to Property Transactions and special circumstances (Regulation 4.6.3) to provide prescribed procedures to be followed to ensure that prior to making a Declaration of Special Circumstances it:

• gives disclosure of the reasons for the special circumstances;
• gives disclosure of other options to meet the circumstances which have been explored and abandoned;
• gives disclosure of the manner and extent to which property may be acquired, sold, mortgaged or in any other manner dealt with;
• consults fully with all bodies which may be affected by the declaration, taking cognizance of the purpose, functions, responsibilities and rights of those bodies as described in the Regulations;
• gives all affected Church Councils or other responsible bodies opportunity to respond in writing within a defined timeframe to the Synod or its Standing Committee, which has considered those submissions in its deliberations;
• ensures that natural justice is provided for all involved parties.

Rationale:

The decision of the 2013 Meeting of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania to declare special circumstances under Regulation 4.6.3 in order to sell properties under the oversight of congregations and other bodies without the approval or consent of Church Councils or other responsible bodies and to use the proceeds to repay debts of the Synod, caused considerable distress and confusion, leading even to proceedings in the civil courts.

A Presidential Ruling confirmed that a Synod or its Standing Committee was free to declare “special circumstances” for reasons it considered sufficient and that it could sell any and every property held by the Property Trust unless there were trust or other legal reasons prohibiting such divestment and use for other purposes.

The proposal follows extensive consultation and discussion by a group of current and former leaders within the synod, and seeks to give guidelines as to how synods should proceed after they have declared special circumstances to exist.

The proposed amendment asks for prescribed procedures to be placed into this Regulations, to ensure that there is openness for all parts of the Church as to why “special circumstances” are to be declared, whether other options have been fully investigated, which properties may be acquired, sold, etc and most important, that there is proper and timely consultation with other councils of the church which have responsibility for the properties which may be affected.

Such consultation is at the heart of the polity of the Uniting Church. As the Basis of Union eloquently puts it, “Each council will recognise the limits of its own authority and give heed to other councils of the Church, so that the whole body of believers may be Assembly proposal re 4.6.3 united by mutual submission in the service of the Gospel”.

In 2014 there was an acknowledgement to the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania that in many instances there had not been adequate consultation with affected congregations. The Synod’s learning from its experience are such that most or all of the steps proposed to be prescribed are likely to be followed if the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania ever again acts under Reg. 4.6.3. Acceptance of this proposal will ensure that any other Synod which acts under Reg. 4.6.3 will avoid much of the distress caused in Victoria and Tasmania in 2013-2014.