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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 16:07 GMT
Cardinal breaches castle walls
The cardinal's weekend at Sandringham marks his church's role in British life
By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

The Queen is expecting an unusual guest at one of her homes on 12 January.

She has invited Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, archbishop of Westminster, to stay at Sandringham.

The cardinal, head of the Catholic church in England and Wales, will preach at a service the following day.

The sermon will make fascinating listening for the Queen, the head of the church of England.

The cardinal will be preaching on the account in St John's gospel of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus is described as turning water miraculously into wine.

Dog-loving countryman

His theme is the instruction by Jesus' mother to the servants: "Do whatever he tells you."

The service will not be a Catholic mass, but the traditional Anglican morning prayer.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor   BBC
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor: Royal guest

The cardinal, a man who exudes bonhomie and was once described as "like everyone's favourite uncle", is unlikely to be overawed during his Royal week-end.

He is said to be looking forward to getting out of London and walking in the country with the Queen and her dogs - he was a dog-owner before moving to Westminster.

But he will probably reflect on the changes in his church, and in Britain at large, that have made his visit possible.

The cardinal's spokesman said: "The cardinal is looking forward to his weekend with members of the Royal Family in Sandringham.

"This invitation reflects the spirit of unity and friendship that the Queen has always practised and is a further positive step in ecumenical relations," he said.

Remarkable step

Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable. The Queen as monarch is head of the church of England, the state church, and the state insists that no Catholic may be crowned monarch.

This invitation reflects the spirit of unity and friendship that the Queen has always practised

Spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

So it is a remarkable step for the head of a church which still officially treats Catholics as second class to entertain their leader, for the first time since the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

The reality today is that the relationship between the two churches is more often marked by respect and affection.

The Queen herself has smoothed the way, greeting the pope at Buckingham Palace in 1982, and in 1995 becoming the first monarch since the seventeenth century to attend a Catholic service.

Those twenty years have seen an accelerating acceptance of Catholicism into British life. The old distrust of those who owe their allegiance to a foreign ruler - which technically the pope still is - has gone.

Waning influence

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders are Catholics, as is the Prime Minister's wife.

Catholics are involved and accepted at all levels of national life. They have finally come in from the cold.

Queen   PA
The Queen is no stranger to Catholicism
But towards Catholics and most Christians, society is becoming increasingly lukewarm.

Across the main denominations the picture is the same - falling church attendance, would-be clergy candidates far fewer than they were, and chilly economic winds.

For the churches, that may be no bad thing. The future may mean fewer members but more active and committed ones.

Same hymn-sheet

But one reason people worry less than they did about Catholic influence is because they think no church counts for very much.

So the natural tendency is for the churches to co-operate more and argue less. It is hard to find much real difference between, say, Catholic, Anglican and Methodist teaching on a range of social and political issues.

The cardinal is making a signal advance in Catholic terms. But the indications are that growing numbers are not very interested in who the Queen invites to preach to her.

Many Britons, it seems, are not really concerned to know how she spends her weekends at all.

The BBC's Robert Piggott
"A rapid erosion of historic barriers"
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