Given the expense to a Church community of purchasing land and building a place of worship for ongoing worship and community activities, it is becoming increasingly common for “new Australian” Christians to use, with the consent of the leaders of the church community which owns the place of worship, other communities’ churches for ceremonies and social gatherings. Being Christian, the owning community has a tendency to be liberal about sharing space, allowing the new community to freely use church premises for the Sunday ceremony and even other events. But is this really the answer to the problem of these new communities and the church owners? What we are hearing is that problems can arise with the new community taking liberties with parking spaces, church premises and areas for social gatherings at times when the owning church community has a responsibility to provide those areas to others for baptisms, weddings and funerals themselves.
It may just be that you need to set the boundaries between the use of the premises by church owners and the newcomers in the form of a licence. A licence can deal with all kinds of issues that may present a problem to you during the course of the relationship, such as the areas that the new community are free to use, when they need to clean it, what kinds of repairs the new community need to carry out as a result of their use of the space, whether any contributions need to be made towards food and beverages that may be available in social space and, most importantly, insurance issues. Have your visiting community arranged for public liability insurance, for example? This is a question that you may well ask but it may be too late if not dealt with at the outset. And what happens if the incoming priest or pastor has important equipment lost or stolen while on the premises?
In addition to these practical questions, it is clear that the matter will not be resolved by simply sending a letter to the incoming community setting out the terms upon which they can use the premises. As a matter of contract law, it is always the case that a document that is not signed by both parties and expressed to be the entire agreement between the parties, will provide great uncertainty during the resolution of disputes in that the terms of the contract will need to be ascertained from the conduct of each of the parties. This involves taking statements from relevant witnesses just to prove what was agreed between the parties. Cases such as Banks v Williams (1912) 12 SR (NSW) 382 and Wilson v Belfast Corporation (1921) 55 ILT 205 demonstrate that upon receiving such a letter, the incoming community will not be taken to be bound by the contents of the owning community’s letter if they have not informed the owning community of their decision in the matter. Contract law cases demonstrate the ambiguity of silence on the part of the recipient of such a letter and provide that it is not always enough to justify a finding that there has been an offer and acceptance, leading to a valid contract. In this regard, we note cases such as MSC Mediterranean Shipping Co. SA v BRE-Metro Limited (1985) 2 Lloyds Rep 239.
In addition if it is a concern that the church community do not want to “over-legalise” the situation or to take the other community to Court, the matter can be dealt with by a carefully crafted dispute resolution clause that allows for matters to be discussed sensibly by the leaders of each community behind closed doors.
If any major works are to be carried out on church premises, you may be able to politely follow the terms of your licence to notify the incoming community of changes to access to the premises during that time. Having an agreement about this from the start will avoid any feelings of being uncomfortable about changes to the arrangements later on.
So the next time a community approaches yours with a proposal to share space, protect your community’s interests and set the benchmark high in the form of a licence.