Theft vicar linked to Blake escape

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The Church of England clergyman who advocated shoplifting from big stores was embroiled in another row yesterday after being linked to the escape of the spy George Blake.

The Rev John Papworth, 75, provoked uproar by suggesting that stealing from supermarkets was a "way of reallocating economic resources".

Mr Papworth, who works part time at St Mark's Church in St John's Wood, North London, told Radio 4: "Jesus said 'Love your neighbour', he did not say 'Love Marks and Spencers'."

He went on to argue : "When you talk about stealing you can only steal from a person, you can only have a moral relationship with a person, you don't have a moral relationship with things - that is a power relationship." Yesterday he admitted for the first time that he played an active role in the escape of double agent George Blake.

MI6 spy Blake was a traitor who also served the KGB but in 1961 he was caught and sentenced to 42 years in prison. Mr Papworth confirmed that following Blake's escape from prison he hid the spy at his home in Earls Court before he was smuggled out to Moscow.

Mr Papworth, a dedicated peace campaigner, was imprisoned in the 1960s along with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, a noted CND supporter. He was also jailed in the US for taking part in a march for black rights.

Last night a spokesman for the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, said: "The Church's teaching based on the Bible is quite clear - thou shalt not steal."

The spokesman went on the stress that Mr Papworth had no official status within the Church as he had retired and his views were his own. But that did not prevent his comments whipping up a bitter pre-election political spat.

The Home Secretary Michael Howard turned up the political heat when he tried to link Mr Papworth's remarks to comments made by the Labour leader Tony Blair.

Mr Howard said: "Tony Blair made remarks about pickpockets himself which were not entirely dissimilar to this in a speech to the British Rail Consortium not so very long ago".

This produced a furious denial from Labour. A spokesman said: "This is a deliberate attempt by Michael Howard to smear Tony Blair. It is a sign of the growing desperation of the Tories that they are increasingly trying to fight this election in the gutter."