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Paisley, the Pope, and the 1981 papers

Today, the torch of anti-papalism has been passed from Protestants to atheists.

Among the most intriguing revelations to emerge from this year's batch of government files from thirty years ago is the suggestion that Pope John Paul II might have been invited to address Parliament during his 1982 visit to Britain. In the event the idea was dropped, partly because of fears that the Reverend Ian Paisley might "make a nuisance of himself". A horrified Margaret Thatcher considered that such an occurrence would have "the gravest consequences and would damage the pope, the established church and parliament."

The fear was to be realised a few years later, although not in Britain. In 1988, Paisley disrupted the pontiff's speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, standing up to denounce John Paul through a megaphone as the Antichrist. It's doubtful, though, that either the pope or the European Parliament suffered great reputational damage as a result.

There were also constitutional objections to the idea, with the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong declaring that it would look "very odd if the pope were to address members of the two houses of parliament in a country which has an established church of which he is not head." Even Britain's senior Catholic leaders were dubious about the proposal, while some Protestant campaigners were aghast at the very idea of a papal visit.

In the event, the visit went ahead largely hitch-free, but also with a bare minimum of official involvement, although the pope did drop briefly into Buckingham Palace to have tea with the Queen. Awkward issues were sidestepped by stressing that John Paul was coming in a purely pastoral capacity.

Things were very different last year when Benedict XVI made a full state visit to Britain. Westminster Hall was packed for the pope's address, but there was no sign of Ian Paisley, by then a lord. Paisley had put in an appearance in Scotland a couple of days earlier to denounce the pope's arrival, but didn't make too much of a "nuisance of himself" and didn't try to heckle Benedict directly. Instead he organised a rival church service at John Knox's old chapel in Edinburgh, at which he lamented that the papal visit should have coincided with the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation.

Instead, the torch of anti-papalism has been passed to a new type of dissenter. I suspect that when the equivalent files are released in 2040 it'll be Richard Dawkins, rather than Ian Paisley, who'll be seen to have caused the government the biggest headaches. The protests against last year's papal visit were dominated by secular concerns about child abuse and opposition to the Catholic church's stance on contraception, homosexuality and the role of women. Where Paisley quoted the Book of Revelation, Geoffrey Robertson QC referred to the UN Charter and tried to threaten the pope, not with hellfire but with the International Court. (Though the threat was, let's face it, no less theoretical.)

Indeed, there's unlikely to be anything quite so embarrassing as what has already emerged -- the leak in April 2010 of a bizarre foreign office "brainstorming session" in which suggestions for the trip included sending the pope to an abortion ward and getting him to perform a duet with the Queen.

The release of documents under the thirty year rule may be anachronistic, but it does offer us each December a window into past concerns that might otherwise be forgotten -- and a reminder that while history doesn't repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. 1981, a year notable for austerity, riots and a royal wedding, offers an especially fascinating point of comparison. The discussion around the proposed papal speech reveals a Britain that was not notably more religious than today but that did have a greater sense of itself as a Protestant nation with an established church, a nation in which (for example) the ban on Catholics marrying into the royal family was less controversial than it is now.

There was both less overt secularism and more reticence about public discussion of religion. The Pope's visit was assumed to be primarily of interest to Catholics and opposition to it concentrated in Protestant campaigners such as Paisley. The Pope remains a divisive figure. But the dividing lines are drawn differently today: not between Protestant and Catholic or even between Christians and followers of other faiths, but between the secular and the religious.