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As Benedict XVI prepares for Britain, Sayeeda Warsi "does God" in Oxford. But the Papal visit presents the Government with hard choices.

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-09-16 at 08.05.01 Screen shot 2010-09-16 at 08.04.19 Today, the Pope arrives in Britain, to be greeted by the Queen.  And yesterday, Sayeeda Warsi arrived in Oxford, to be met by Church of England Bishops.  To some degree, the two ventures have a common purpose as well as imposing receptions.  Both the "Servant of the servants of God" and the Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party have a message to deliver about the relationship between faith and society, religion and politics - and the close timing is no coincidence.

David Cameron, like Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg, was caught off-guard by a question during the general election Party Leaders' TV debates by a hostile question about Benedict XVI's visit.  He welcomed the prospect unambiguously, as did Brown and Clegg.  This may have seemed a mistaken judgment call.  For the tone of that TV question presaged much of what's followed.  Today's Daily Mail and Guardian lead on a comparison between Britain and a Third World Country by a senior Cardinal (see here and here).

As it happens, Cardinal Kasper was talking about first impressions on arriving at Heathrow.  But the media projection of his remark, made in an interview to a German magazine, confirms that the Papal trip is taking place against what Ofsted Inspectors would call a "challenging" background.  Richard Dawkins, Peter Fry, Peter Tatchell and other protesters are out and about with the zest of participants in a medieval carnival.  Coverage in much of the left-leaning media has been hostile.

I listed recently in CentreRight seven barriers to a successful Papal visit (and that was before the Cardinal's intervention).  But although Sayeeda Warsi was speaking to an Anglican audience, her remarks are helpful to the country's Catholic visitor - and demonstrate both that the Government believes (rightly) that those opposed to the Papal visit are less electorally significant than those who support it, and that it's convinced (rightly, again) that Britain's faith communities are indispensable to social progress.

Warsi attacked Labour for seeking to undermine "the positive power of faith", proclaimed that the Coalition "does God" (which may come as news to Nick Clegg, who's an atheist), and added that Britain needs a government that "understands faith, which is comfortable with faith, and which, when necessary, is prepared to speak out about issues of faith...Under our plans, you will have more power, more responsibility, and more choice over how to get involved in your communities and over how to apply your skills"

She said -

"When you think about it, it's incredible that many people of faith give up their evenings to work as street pastors, making sure that young men are less at risk of knife crime and young women less likely to run into trouble after a night out...I don't just want to say to you that you have a lot to contribute to building the Big Society. I want to tell you that for me you are at the heart of society already and key to its future, and that this government will be on your side." 

So far, so unsurprising: any Government was always likely to line up with the Pope against the protesters.  And this one, shaped partly by Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, looks to the work of Britian's faith communities - believing that it proves that they're helping to tackle the root causes of poverty and deprivation by providing (for example) children with good school places, getting alcohol and drug-dependent adults back into work, running sheltered housing for older people, or finding homes for children and teenagers who need fostering and adoption.

Some of those chances for children no longer exist, because Catholic adoption agencies have closed.  They folded because in their view Labour's Equality legislation violated their Christian ethos - leaving them unable to work freely.  The episode is a reminder that the Pope's visit isn't an easy publicity hit for Team Cameron.  We read that he's likely to criticise the Equality legislation and ask, in effect, what comes first - the rights of faith communities to live their faith or the rights of people to live their sexuality?

Such questions raise a further one: where does the Government stand on the Equality laws that it inherited?  This Papal visit is going to be interesting.


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