The Uniting Church's plan to sell a popular Williamstown church has faltered after a member of the local congregation filed a lawsuit to block the sale.
The decision to sell has opened a bitter rift between church management and worshippers, who complain they are being "evicted" from their 130-year-old home.
The lawsuit is likely to be the first in a series of challenges to the church's plan to sell dozens of Victorian properties in an attempt to pay off a $36.6 million debt incurred after the collapse of Acacia College last year. The Church is seeking to raise $78 million in total from the sale of assets.
Retired County Court judge Ross Howie, a member of St Stephen's since 1982, launched the suit on behalf of the 119-member congregation with the blessing of its minister, Reverend Ken Dempsey.
"Congregations throughout Victoria are outraged by what [the church] is doing. It's bad leadership, to put it modestly," Mr Dempsey said. "It looks like they've gone for the properties that are going to be the easiest to sell off and worth the most. They said, 'Your property is up for sale in a week.' In our case, we happened to have a retired judge in the congregation and he said, 'I reckon we can fight this."'
Mr Howie is challenging the decision of the church hierarchy to sell the Melbourne Road property on the grounds it failed to observe the "rules of natural justice" and violated two Synod resolutions that require consultation before the sale of church real estate.
"The decision was made without any notice, consultation or discussion with the congregation or church council," Mr Howie's affidavit said. "The response was shock, disbelief, betrayal, profound sorrow."
Mr Howie also alleges that one church figure told the congregation they had been "directed" not to consult with the congregation or church council about the sale.
General secretary Mark Lawrence said the Uniting Church was "addressing" the matters raised in the affidavit.
Mr Howie declined to comment because the matter is now before the court.
The property is expected to be listed for $5 million, according to Mr Dempsey.