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08 April 2013

Tributes to the nation's 'most openly Christian' prime minister

"We are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible." These were the words of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, described by some as the country's most openly Christian prime minister, who died this morning at the age of 87.

Though her tenure as the country's first female prime minister drew both strong praise and fierce criticism, Lady Thatcher was a woman who believed in the importance of the Christian faith for the good of the nation as a whole.

In a controversial speech she gave to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988, Lady Thatcher – the daughter of Methodist lay preacher Alfred Roberts, said: "The Christian religion – which, of course embodies many of the great spiritual and moral truths of Judaism – is a fundamental part of our national heritage.

"And I believe it is the wish of the overwhelming majority of people that this heritage should be preserved and fostered. For centuries it has been our very life blood."

Expert Antonio E Weiss claimed that of all the British prime ministers since Harold Macmillan, Thatcher was "by far the most vocal about her faith whilst in office, and the only one to draw direct and explicit parallels between her personal beliefs and her political ones".

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 1978, Thatcher – who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990 - wrote that individual members of society had both a responsibility to themselves and others. "We are all members one of another [and this] is most vividly expressed in the Christian concept of the Church as the Body of Christ; from this we learn the importance of interdependence and the individual achieves his own fulfilment in service to others and to God."

Despite her strong religious convictions, she made clear that faith could not inform every political decision. Speaking in 1963 to Christ Church Youth Fellowship, in a talk entitled 'What it means to be a Christian Member of Parliament', she said that some questions had to be answered in an ethical sense rather than a religious one.

The Margaret Thatcher Foundation reports: "For instance, one could not make a religious decision on a lorry route through Finchley, or soaring blocks of flats at Whetstone."

Commenting on her political legacy, Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, said: "Leaving school into the economic wasteland of Liverpool in the 1980s gave me a pretty negative view of the monetarist policies of Margaret Thatcher. However, as the years have passed and politics has now become more about calculation than conviction and PR than passion, it is clear that her courageous style of leadership brought many benefits to national life – not least vision. Becoming the first woman PM is a tremendous achievement and it means that her legacy is secure.

"Even so, with our present social and economic problems it could be said that Lady Thatcher's idea of superseding the state with the market looks like we may have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. As her economic liberalism was followed by Blair's social liberalism and now by Cameron's hybrid of the two, it is clear that we need an entirely new way of doing politics. As we mourn the passing of this historic figure, let's hope that our politicians are prompted to start moving towards our post-liberal future."

Christian commentators have made tributes to the former prime minister today.

Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said: "It was said of #Thatcher that being with her was like being with electricity. She was highly charged, holding strong convictions and our society changed as a result of her leadership."

Lord Carey, who was appointed archbishop of Canterbury during Lady Thatcher's time in office, told the Daily Telegraph: "People may differ about her politics – and she divided opinion as any politician does – but there is no doubt that she transformed Britain, she brought back respect, gave us a backbone and she fought for us."

Justin Welby, the current archbishop, said: "It is right we give thanks for life devoted to public service, acknowledging faith that inspired and sustained her."

Colin Bloom, executive director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, said: "The Conservative Christian Fellowship started whilst Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and she will forever have a special place in our hearts.

"It has been said of her that whilst many prime ministers were weathervanes, she was a signpost. Her legacy for both the United kingdom and the world is incalculable; history will show that she, more than any other British prime minister of the past 60 years, changed our nation for the better.

"Her Methodist upbringing shone through her; she was particularly fond of a quotation from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism: '"Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.' Something which we think might be a fitting epitaph for her. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends."

Downing Street announced today that Lady Thatcher would receive a ceremonial funeral with military honours in a service to be held at St Paul's Cathedral.

In response to the news of her death, prime minister David Cameron said: "It is with great sadness that I learned of the death of Lady Thatcher. We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton."

Rev Dr Mark Wakelin, president of the Methodist Conference, said that Lady Thatcher was a "hugely significant, complex and yet divisive figure in post-war British politics".

He added: "She achieved a major breakthrough as Britain's first woman prime minister, and her time in office fundamentally changed the nature of British society, especially the relationship between individuals and the state.

"For many people she was a courageous and committed leader, and one of the best known British politicians around the world - her roots in a personally responsible Methodist tradition were greatly admired by many.

"Perhaps one of her greater achievements was to change the post-war political consensus, forcing her political rivals to campaign far more on her terms."