Scotland's main Protestant churches to end schism and unite

John Knox, the leader of Scotland's bloody Reformation, must be turning in his grave over plans for Scotland's Protestant churches to unite after centuries of schism.

The plan would see plain, presbyterian Church of Scotland congregations sharing pews with followers of the Scottish Episcopal Church, whose "bells and smells", bishops and veneration of the Virgin Mary often seem more Roman Catholic than Protestant. It is an extraordinary proposal given the nature of the Scottish Reformation. Scots burnt, hanged and shot each other in the name of faith, with a passion rarely matched in England.

The move to a "superkirk" of perhaps 750,000 followers would also bring within the same fold the much smaller United Reformed Church and the Methodists. However, their inclusion in the proposal is less startlingc than the involvement of the Episcopal Church, which initiated the merger talks in 1996 under the auspices of the Scottish Church Initiative For Union (Scifu).

The Episcopal Church is often referred to, derisively by presbyterians, as the "English Church" because it belongs to the Anglican Communion. Nevertheless, the church initiative has backed the union of the four churches by 2010 and the matter will be debated in May by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Such a union raises many theological conundrums such as how the Church of Scotland, with its traditional presbyterian emphasis on bible reading, will be reconciled with the Episcopalians, who focus more on the Eucharist. Already three former moderators of the Church of Scotland have backed the idea, meaning that it should gain a fair wind during the debate. Among them is the Rev James Weatherhead, the 1993 moderator, who has played down his Church's disdain for bishops, saying Scottish distaste for such hierarchy wasreally about opposition to the Crown controlling the Church.

The Rev Duncan McClements, the Church of Scotland's representative on Scifu, saidunion was inevitable. He said: "When you ask people to change there is a built-in resistance in all of us. The task we face is building on and capitalising on the sense that we are the same."

The merger makes considerable financial and political sense in an era of falling church attendances. The Scottish Episcopal Church is down to 65,000 members, with the Church of Scotland claiming about 650,000 adherents.

There would, even after merger, remain considerable numbers of Scottish Christians outside the new superkirk. The Roman Catholic church, which claims about 700,000 members, is an observer at the talks.

The proposals come at a time when the Free Church of Scotland (the "Wee Frees") are following the much more established tradition of endless schism. The "Wee Frees", the scourge of heavy drinking and work on a Sunday, face possible bankruptcy because of the decision of a fifth of their clergy to break away.

The damaging split has arisen out of claims by 31 ministers that allegations of improper behaviour levelled against Professor Donald Macleod, a leading Free Churchtheologian, have never beenadequately investigated.

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