PLANS for a so-called "super Church" of the four leading Protestant denominations in Scotland were yesterday dealt a death blow.
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposals after a heated debate lasting more than two hours.
The idea, formulated by the Scottish Churches Initiative for Union (SCIFU), would have seen the Kirk move towards a merger with the Methodist Church, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the United Reformed Church.
Under the plans, churches of different denominations would have been grouped together under a common hierarchy, partly controlled by newly-appointed bishops.
The Kirk’s committee on ecumenical relations had called on members of the General Assembly to accept the proposals and sanction further negotiations to assess the cost and legal implications of union.
However, the Kirk’s ruling body voted against the move by 384 votes to 99.
Instead, the Kirk agreed to foster closer links with churches of different denominations on a local level while a review of its overall strategy is carried out.
The Reverend Erik Cramb, the convener of the Church’s Committee on Ecumenical Relations, said he was "disappointed" with the decision, but insisted there was still scope for different Churches to work together.
"I heard the assembly say that we needed to depart from this, but just as clearly I heard the assembly say that people are still anxious to pursue ecumenical relationships," he said.
"It is now our task to look afresh at how we can best support the Church in this desire."
Despite the body blow dealt to the SCIFU proposals, other Protestant Churches vowed to fight on.
The Rt Rev Michael Henley, an Episcopal bishop who chaired the SCIFU working group, said: "It is a significant blow to this particular bid for greater unity, but the ideal of Christian unity doesn’t live or die on the decision of one Church.
"I’m still interested in pursuing the SCIFU initiative with the Methodists and the United Reform Church - this is an ideal that is not going to go away."
The decision draws a line under more than 40 years of discussion within the Kirk over proposals to unite with other Protestant Churches.
Criticism has centred on two critical issues, with opponents saying the introduction of bishops is anathema to the Presbyterian principle that ministers are all equal.
There has also been concern that the plans would severely diminish the authority of elders who, according to Church law, have parity with ministers.
Previous attempts to merge the Protestant Churches in Scotland during the 1950s and 1960s failed over the issue of bishops.
This year, there was also concern that the individual character of the Kirk would be lost in a merger and that it would not bolster falling congregations.
The Rev Gordon Savage, who submitted the successful counter motion calling for the SCIFU proposals to be scrapped, said: "We are surely all one in Christ Jesus and we don’t need to negotiate complicated joinery of denominations to make that apparent.
"A lot of good work has gone into SCIFU, but what alarms me is the lack of support in the parishes. Now is the time to depart from SCIFU."
Members were being asked to "vote ourselves out of existence", said the Rev Paraic Reamonn. "Do we have confidence in the Church of Scotland as a Church, in our history, our traditions and our identity, or do we want to throw that away?" he asked.