Leading Article: Ms Widdecombe proclaims her faith

ANN WIDDECOMBE, the Minister for Social Security, is a much misunderstood woman. Tomorrow she is due to take part in a pair of ceremonies, one on the consecrated Catholic ground of Westminster Cathedral and the other in the crypt of the Houses of Parliament, that will formally turn her into a Roman Catholic. Her critics see the ceremonies as the culmination of a personal crusade against the Archbishop of Canterbury. They also note that the ceremony

during which she will take her first properly Catholic Communion will be the very first High Mass celebrated in the Palace of Westminster since the Reformation. There is a nice irony in choosing to do the job underneath Parliament - the scene of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605.

Among the numerous Members of Parliament who will attend are John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who as the senior Catholic MP at Westminster will be sponsoring Ms Widdecombe's profession of faith; and John Gummer, the Agriculture Minister, who is not yet a Roman Catholic but may become one when the ordination of women in the Church of England becomes a reality.

Ms Widdecombe denies that she is trying to make a point in choosing such a public route to Rome. The choice of Parliament is fortuitous: Westminster, rather than her constituency of Maidstone, is where she does most of her worshipping. Her decision to attend her first Mass there is motivated not by a desire to seek publicity, but by a wish to allow friends among her fellow MPs to attend. Why choose Parliament itself for the afternoon, rather than the cathedral? Well, with Maastricht business on the parliamentary agenda tomorrow, any MPs who attend have to be within earshot of a division bell. Sadly, there are no facilities for warning worshippers of impending votes as they kneel at the cathedral altar-rail.

The ceremony will underline the deepening split in the Church of England. The extent of that split will not be clear until the Vatican makes known its attitude to the dissenters and in particular says what arrangements it proposes for married priests, and how much recognition it will give to their previous lives as Anglican priests. The insensitive manner of Ms Widdecombe's conversion to Catholicism seems calculated to provoke indignation within the Church of England. This should be resisted. The more important question is whether the departure of such adherents is a loss to the Church or a gain.