Anglicans to fight asset sell-off: Bank demands church repay debts of $25 million

PULLING OUT THE STOPS: Anglican Diocese of Bathurst Bishop Ian Palmer warns the church would be decimated if it was forced to sell its properties to recover $25 million in debt.

PULLING OUT THE STOPS: Anglican Diocese of Bathurst Bishop Ian Palmer warns the church would be decimated if it was forced to sell its properties to recover $25 million in debt.

THE Commonwealth Bank is demanding the Anglican Diocese of Bathurst repay its $25 million debt immediately, and to do so it must sell-off church buildings. 

However, Bishop Ian Palmer says the church will not go down without a fight and will do all it can to protect its churches. 

“We believe there are other avenues to explore, but in order to defend ourselves we’re seeking support from the parishes,” he said.

Parishes will be asked to come up with a “target” amount of money to contribute to the diocese war chest, but if the parishes do not have access to liquid assets they may have to sell church property to raise the funds. 

Bishop Palmer said if property was to be sold it would be up to the parishioners, but they would need to provide the target money. 

“We are instructed that in order to repay this money immediately, we must sell off assets to meet this bill,” he said. 

“What we are saying is that we are protecting these assets, for the good of the communities.

“But we will have to use some of those assets, a small proportion.”

In legal proceedings, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia sent the Bathurst diocese a list of properties to be sold to recoup the money.

Church buildings were at the bottom of that list, Bishop Palmer said. 

But he believed church rectories were just as important for the lifeblood of the church community and did not want to see them fall out of  church hands. 

The estimated cost of the court action, should it go to trial, is about $1 million.

It is not expected to go to trial this year.

The church is arguing the Anglican Development Fund, which no longer exists, borrowed the money from the bank and the church is therefore not responsible for actions undertaken by the defunct fund. 

The Anglican Diocese of Bathurst covers about a third of NSW, from the Blue Mountains to the Queensland border, and consists of 34 parishes. 

It stretches from Oberon, Cowra and West Wyalong in the south to Cobar and Bourke in the west, across the north-west to Coonamble and Coonabarabran, and in the east to  Coolah, Mudgee and Rylstone.

“We don’t think that the demands the Commonwealth Bank have placed upon us are reasonable and in order to mount our defence we need support from the parishes,” Bishop Palmer said. 

A meeting for parishioners will be held at St Barnabas Church in Orange at 10am, when Bishop Palmer says he will explain the situation to all Anglicans. 

The Commonwealth Bank was contacted for comment but a spokesperson said the bank could not comment because the matter was before the court.

TIMELINE

September 2011

The Anglican dioceses of Bathurst, Riverina and Canberra-Goulburn plan to merge their operations and their finances.

The Canberra-Goulburn Synod had heard Bathurst was struggling with the aftermath of drought, an ageing population and dwindling rural communities.

However, the merger did not happen. 

July 2012

Bishop Richard Hurford says the 120 representatives who attended the Church Synod voted unanimously for the Bathurst Diocese to guarantee the future of the three Anglican schools, All Saints College at Bathurst, Orange Anglican Grammar School and Dubbo’s Maquarie Anglican Grammar School, even if it means selling church assets.

August 2012

Holy Trinity parishioners fight the church’s decision to sell off assets including the Bluestone Hall in Anson Street. 

November 2012

Bishop Hurford retires, succeeded by Bishop Ian Palmer. 

February 2013

The Anglican Diocese of Bathurst says it can no longer afford to support Orange Anglican Grammar School or the Macquarie Anglican Grammar School in Dubbo. The schools are put up for sale. 

October 2013 

The Commonwealth Bank freezes the church’s accounts in a bid to recover the debt, which is about $36 million. 

The sale of the Orange Anglican Grammar School and the Macquarie Anglican Grammar School to the Sydney Anglican School Corporation is finalised, bringing the debt down to about $25 million. 

April 2014 

The Commonwealth Bank starts legal proceedings to recover the debt. Bishop Palmer asks each parish to make 13 payments to the diocese per year rather than 12. 

July 2014

The Commonwealth Bank demands the church repay its debt by selling off church assets. Bishop Palmer calls on the parishes to fund a legal battle to protect those assets.

nicole.kuter@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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