Bisrat v Kebede (2017)


Reference to "the mother church" in a charity's trust deed giving control of a church building was to the Addis Ababa synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Although a rival Seattle synod had claimed subsequent revisions to the church's byelaws had led to their appointment as trustees instead, their adoption had not changed the meaning of the trust deed.


The court was required to determine the legal effect of a registered charity's trust deed in a dispute between rival branches of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

The claimants and defendants represented two rival factions of the Ethiopian church. The church building in London was the property of a charitable trust. The parties disagreed as to who were the trustees and therefore who had control over the charity, and hence the church. The claimants' faction supported the Seattle synod and the defendants' faction supported the Addis Ababa synod. The 1992 trust deed had appointed the defendants as trustees and recited that the church building was a branch of the Addis Ababa church. The claimants claimed that a meeting altering the trust's byelaws had taken place which had led to their appointment as trustees. The dispute between the parties was as to the correct interpretation of the reference in the trust deed to the "mother church in Ethiopia...operating under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarch thereof". That interpretation turned on whether the wording was to be taken as referring to the Patriarch currently in Addis Ababa or an earlier Patriarch who was in exile in the US.

The issue was whether the adoption of the charity's byelaws had changed the meaning of the wording in the trust deed.


(1) Any reasonable observer would, as at the date of the trust deed in 1992, have understood that reference to the mother church of Ethiopia was referring to the Addis Ababa church because (a) the church had been founded by a priest sent out by the Addis Ababa church to establish a branch in London, who was appointed as one of the first trustees; unless there was a change of circumstances, one would expect the mother church to be the church that had sent him; (b) as at 1992 there was only one synod, the Addis Ababa synod. The fourth Patriarch was yet to have established the rival synod in the US; (c) by 1992 it was likely to have been known that the fourth Patriarch was not regarded by the Addis Ababa synod to be the current Patriarch as he had resigned; (d) the trust deed had identified a mother church of which the church was said to be a branch; the reasonable objective observer would not conclude that no mother church could be identified; (e) the key words in the deed were "mother church in Ethiopia"; reference to "which is operating under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarch thereof" was descriptive. The Patriarch referred to was to be taken as the one elected by the Addis Ababa church.

(2) The byelaws confirmed that the proper construction of "mother church" was a reference to the Addis Ababa synod because (a) the byelaws were based upon the administrative structure of the church provided for by church regulations internal to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which were intended to relate to the institutions of that church; (b) those institutions were unequivocally those of the mother church Addis Ababa synod as the church regulation's definition of the holy synod referred to Addis Ababa; (c) there was no indication in the byelaws that there would be move to a holy synod in exile. Adoption of the byelaws therefore did not mean that the deed wording should be read differently. The charity was a separate and distinct charity from the church with its own governance and procedures.

Judgment for defendants