THE future of a Glasgow church, home to Scotland's most ancient Christian sculptures, is in doubt after a decision by church officials to close its doors.

Govan Old Parish Church, which was built in 1888, stands on a religious site dating back to the sixth century. However, the Church of Scotland's decision to "rationalise its properties" has forced the congregation to amalgamate with Govan New Church in the autumn.

A former minister of the church, the Reverend Tom Davidson Kelly, described the move as "unforgivable".

He said Govan Old Parish Church was "possibly the most significant church in Glasgow, including the Cathedral," and claimed the building was being used as a centre of worship before the formation of Scotland as a nation.

Davidson Kelly went on to attack the decision made by the Church of Scotland's arbitration panel last week.

He said: "I can think of no country in Europe where a church community would willingly give up a sixth-century place of burial, worship and service. I consider the decision to be unprincipled, illogical, indefensible and unforgivable."

A spokesman for the Church of Scotland defended the decision, stating the church had been left with "more buildings than we require".

"Every recent General Assembly has endorsed the view that the Church should rationalise its properties because, in addition to having a large number of churches, many of these are expensive to maintain and a number no longer fit the purposes of their local congregations", he said.

The current minister of Govan Old Parish, the Reverend Dr Norman Shanks is calling on his parishioners to rally round and back any initiative to ensure a new use for the building, although he remained hopeful the building will still be able to be used as a centre for worship in the future.

Gehan Macleod, widow of GalGael galley builder Colin Macleod, whose late husband was buried in the church before a crowd of 600 mourners said: "This is a tragedy. Govan needs a spiritual centre, you can't build a community around a collection of steel and glass boxes with people watching television inside them."

The A-listed church has 31 pre-Christian and Christian sculptured stones, including five hogback monuments dating back to the ninth and 10th centuries, which are thought to have been originally used as grave markers. These sculptures represent one of the largest collections of early medieval stones in Scotland.

Stephen Driscoll, professor of archaeology at Glasgow University, described the decision as "bizarre", adding: "I find it extraordinary that the Church of Scotland can turn its back on a building that has been the cultural centre of Govan for 1500 years."

Pat Cassidy, managing director of Govan Workspace, said: "Govan Old is the oldest known Christian site in Glasgow and has to be protected. It's up there with Iona, and it has to be protected as well."

A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland said: "Govan Old Parish Church is A-listed, meaning it is of national importance, and any alterations affecting the character of the building would require the consent of the local authority and Historic Scotland."

A further concern is the fact that there is no option to appeal the Church of Scotland's decision.

A Church spokesman explained: "When an arbitration committee is appointed, it will consider all of the pertinent factors, taking advice from independent surveyors, Historic Scotland, and other such outside bodies.

"Sadly, it is rarely possible to please everyone in situations like this. There is no right of appeal available, as lengthy disputes on issues of congregational union would be far more damaging to the work of the local church than the initial decision of the committee."