Williams attacks exclusion of RE in his final Easter sermon

Outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury and Catholic leaders take on highly charged political subjects

Religious leaders seemed to compete with each other yesterday over who could deliver the most politically charged Easter sermon as they continued to promote debate about the role of faith in public life.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, used his last Easter message before his retirement this year to attack what he called the downgrading of religious education.

The man being touted as his successor, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, publicly baptised people on the steps of York Minister in what has become something of an annual tradition in the city under his leadership.

Senior Catholics delivered similarly political homilies, with one calling on Christians to wear crucifixes, and another using a media interview to restate the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to gay marriage.

In an Easter message last week, David Cameron welcomed what he described as a renewed willingness by faith communities to engage in a "fightback". But his speech concerned secularists and gay rights groups who fear the Prime Minister may backtrack on a commitment to support gay marriage.

Dr Williams, speaking at Canterbury Cathedral yesterday, criticised the Government for not including religious education as a subject counting towards the English baccalaureate, an alternative to A-levels which is being offered by more and more schools.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, urged his followers to "proudly" wear a cross to display their faith.

His counterpart in England and Wales, Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, gave an interview to Sky News in which he attacked plans to make civil marriage available to gay men and women.

Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said last night: "The churches are in revivalist mode and are stopping at nothing to stem their haemhorraging support and boost their power.

"To do so they are inventing persecution, threatening the Government, rewriting history and even persecuting an oppressed minority – gay people."

WHAT THEY SAID: EASTER MESSAGES

Archbishop Rowan Williams: "There is plenty to suggest that younger people, while still statistically deeply unlikely to be churchgoers, don't have the hostility to faith that one might expect, but at least share some ... sense that there is something here to take seriously."

Cardinal Keith O'Brien: "I hope that increasing numbers of Christians adopt the practice of wearing a cross in a simple and discreet way as a symbol of their beliefs. A simple lapel cross pin costs around £1 . Since this is less than a chocolate Easter egg I hope many people will consider giving some as a gifts and wearing them with pride."

Archbishop Vincent Nichols: "We have legal protection for the shape of marriage that has served society very well ... for centuries and, quite frankly, we really don't see why it's important to change that."

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