Judge asks Free Church groups to end Skye dispute

Three judges have upheld a decision rejecting a claim by the Free Church (Continuing) to the ownership of a church and its manse on Skye.

The church, which split from the Free Church more than 10 years ago, had appealed the original decision made by Lord Uist in 2009.

The appeal to the Court of Session in Edinburgh was seen as a test case.

It has implications for similar Free Church (Continuing) claims to property across Scotland, including in Glasgow.

The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) was set up several years after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against a minister in the 1980s.

Prof Donald Macleod was cleared after a trial at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, but ill feeling continued among some Free Church congregations and led to the formation of the Free Church (Continuing) in 2000.

'Respectfully suggest'

The Free Church disputed the break away group's occupation of Skye's Broadford Church and its manse.

Legal arguments over which congregation should worship there started in 2007.

The Free Church (Continuing) lost a Court of Session action and this latest appeal before three judges.

The appeal judges issued a written ruling running to 116 pages dealing with the arguments based both on law and on church doctrine which they had heard.

One of the judges, Lord Drummond Young, has suggested that congregations could share Broadford Church.

He noted that in modern housing estates there were churches shared by different denominations.

'Helpful proposals'

Lord Drummond Young wrote: "May I, in conclusion, respectfully suggest that this is a case where such an arrangement might be reached?"

The judge said he could find nothing in the trust deeds establishing the Broadford property which would prevent that.

Lord Drummond Young wrote: "In this respect, the exhortation to long suffering forbearance and unity of the spirit within a congregation may be as relevant to Broadford and other communities in Scotland in the 21st Century as it was to Ephesus in the First Century."

In a statement, a Free Church spokesman said there was relief the judges had ruled so decisively in its favour.

He added: "With reference to Lord Drummond Young's suggestion about sharing property, we have always been, and continue to be, open to all helpful proposals and indeed, in some areas, sharing already takes place regularly.

"We hope that this judgement spells the end of the case so that we can all put this behind us and move on to better things."

The legal committee of the Free Church (Continuing) is considering the Court of Session decision.

In a statement the church said said Broadford Church was "seized" from the local congregation by the Free Church.

A spokesman said: "The committee are disappointed at the major aspect of the finding and are currently giving very careful consideration to its implications.

"The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) have consistently sought an equitable solution with regard to the property which belonged to the Free Church of Scotland prior to 2000 and the needs of the bodies which emerged from that division.

"In that connection the committee note with some interest the final paragraph of Lord Drummond Young's opinion which points towards the importance of churches dealing in a gracious manner with regard to the need for property."

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