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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January 2005, 14:42 GMT
The Vicar of Albion meets his match
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

It felt more like a casting call for Vicar of Dibley: The Musical than a political lobby.

Hundreds of female priests gathered at the gates of Downing Street on Thursday morning to sing hymns, swap jokes and wave their white anti-poverty armbands at the passing traffic.

Dawn French
The momentum for Make Poverty History is really gathering speed now
Dawn French
The women were there to support Make Poverty History - a year long campaign to wipe out third world debt and promote fair trade.

But the glorious winter sunshine lent the event something of a carnival atmosphere.

"It's a great turnout isn't it? What's the collective noun for female priests? A handbag?," joked Methodist Minister Cathy Bird.

"Someone up there is smiling on us," said Rev Barbara Holbrook of the Holy Trinity Christ Church, Chesterfield.

Huge fan

Inside Downing Street the real Vicar of Dibley, actress Dawn French, was buttonholing Tony Blair about global poverty - a subject close to the heart of everyone taking part in the march or "get-together" as it was described on the invitation.

"I am here because I spend more on Weightwatchers every week than many families in the world spend on food and that doesn't seem right," said Rev Holbrook.

Campaigners in Trafalgar Square
There was a party atmosphere in Trafalgar Square (PIC: Toby Scott/Methodist Church)

She said she had been to South Africa and witnessed Third World poverty at first hand.

"I don't want to arrive at the Pearly Gates and come face to face with a starving child."

Like everyone I spoke to she was a huge Dawn French fan.

"My nickname used to be the Vicar of Dibley. I think the programme has done a lot of good for the image of the clergy in general, not just female priests."

The show's creator, Richard Curtis, is devoting this year to the make poverty history campaign.

And the festive televised double-header ended with an appeal to join the campaign.

Dawn's people

Everyone at Thursday's lobby had received a glossy Dibley-themed invitation, "calling all girls with white collars".

These truly were Dawn's people and the diminutive comedienne seemed perfectly at home, embracing many of them like old friends.

She was even in danger of being mobbed when the lobby moved on to Trafalgar Square, as eager fans clamoured to get their dog collars autographed.

"Thanks for making us laugh, we love the programme," exclaimed one.

Campaigners meet Tony Blair
Campaigners meet Tony Blair
But the women of the cloth were also anxious not to lose sight of the real reason why they were there.

Sister Jane, of the Sisters Church of Richmond, in south west London, said: "We need to do something about poverty. We need to make it history. It would help to address so many of the problems facing the world today."

'Encouraging'

Everyone spoke of the unique opportunity presented by Britain's presidency of the G8 and EU.

But they were realistic about the prospects for real change.

"I think the politicians understand, whether they take it on board I don't know," said Methodist Minster Pearl Luxton.

Miss French said she had received a sympathetic hearing from Mr Blair, often caricatured, lest we forget, as the Vicar of Albion.

"It was very encouraging. He knows all about this campaign to make poverty history. He knows about the aims of the campaign.

"The momentum for making poverty history is really gathering speed now.

"He hasn't made any commitments here today, he has just listened.

"There is a pretty formidable group of women here today. There are a lot of white collars, with a lot to say and he has listened."




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Dawn French on her meeting with the prime minister



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