The church in Hawthorn.
The church in Hawthorn West. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
The hammer is about to fall on 56 Uniting Church properties in Victoria as the church tries to raise $56 million to pay debts incurred in the calamitous collapse of Acacia College last year.
The church has yet to announce which churches will close because ministers and congregations are still being told, but state secretary Mark Lawrence said the sales would affect at least 14 church complexes. Some services run by the UnitingCare network will be relocated.
Among the churches being sold are Brunswick West, Glenroy, Strathmore, Hawthorn West and Doncaster East, and the properties include tennis courts, vacant land and former manses, Fairfax Media has been told.
The church in Doncaster.
The church in Doncaster East. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Acacia College, a low-fee school for 520 students in Mernda in Melbourne's north, closed last December leaving the church with debts of $36 million, despite the church spending millions of dollars bailing out the developer, who has since died.
The state synod voted in May to raise $56 million to clear that debt, pay down other debts and restore fund reserves.
On Wednesday there was shock and fury as the affected churches learnt of the decision, amid speculation that church officials had targeted parishes without ministers or with elderly ministers to cut payout costs.
The church in Glenroy.
The church in Glenroy.
Malcolm McIlvena, the secretary at St David's Uniting Church in Brunswick West, said: ''They've told us we are out after 105 years. We were not consulted at all.''
He said the weekly congregation was down to about 20 - in the 1930s the Sunday School alone had 200 members - but the church hall was in use every night for tai chi, children's drama and the like, and St David's also owned two units it used rent-free for people who had to come for Melbourne for hospital treatment.
Mr McIlvena was married in the church 50 years ago, and his wife was christened there, he said.
The church in Brunswick.
The church in Brunswick West.
Presbytery officials were due to meet the church's council on Thursday. ''We will ask who do we appeal to, but I know the answer - nobody. Legally it's their property, by act of Parliament in 1977.''
Congregation member Matt Vigus, son of the minister, Andrew Vigus, said, ''I just feel really cheated. We are paying for incompetence to pay off some dodgy deals. Dad will be forced into retirement - he's been a minister for 30 years.''
State moderator Dan Wootton on Wednesday posted a letter on the church website to be read to all congregations on Sunday, apologising to those affected. ''We are a pilgrim people always on the way,'' he wrote.
Dr Lawrence said every Uniting Church property was evaluated on the basis of its contribution to mission, locally and regionally, the impact on mission if it were sold, and its potential price. Presbyteries and church institutions were consulted.
''It has been a heartfelt process, in the knowledge that every one of the properties on the divestment list, would involve pain and grief for members of the church community.'' He said the sales involved less than 1 per cent of the church's properties - it has more than 600 congregations in Victoria and Tasmania and runs 32 welfare agencies - and no services would be cut.