The Rise of the PERCs (That's Posh English Roman Catholics); They May Be One of London's Growing Tribes, but the Stalwarts of the RC Establishment May Be Breathing a Sigh of Relief at the News That the Prime Minister Will Not Be Considering Converting to Rome Just Yet

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Byline: WILLIAM CASH

THE revelation that Tony Blair has been spending time praying "alone" in Westminster Cathedral fuelled speculation that he was about to join the ranks of the so-called PERCS - Posh English Roman Catholics.

The PM has since distanced himself from such talk, though good judges feel he may still convert after he leaves office. With his new Connaught Square address, a brief stroll from the site of the Tyburn martyrs, and his Catholic wife, Cherie, he may still confidently feel that he would be welcomed with open arms into the Establishment Catholic fold in Britain.

Think again, Tony. The truth is that most posh Catholics in Britain are deeply Conservative with both "c's". To most toff RCs, any hint that the PM might convert comes as attractively gift-wrapped as if it were Cromwell announcing his new-found faith.

Blair's qualifications as a potential RC crusader do not sit well with the religious or political sentiments of England's Catholic upper classes.

Whether it is oldergeneration Catholics like Paul Johnson, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, Lord Rees-Mogg, author Piers Paul Read, my father Bill Cash, or such younger figures as Orlando Fraser, convert Zoe Appleyard and her close friends Hugh and Ed van Cutsem, most posh English Catholics will be breathing a sigh of relief that the PM will not, after all, be sharing communion with him.

"I think we were quite ambivalent about the prospect of Blair joining the faith," says Piers Birtwistle, a society photographer who is also a Knight of Malta, the order whose upper-class RC members fund the St John Ambulance and make up the ranks of the Catholic Establishment.

In terms of any new Catholic belief, Blair can expect no preferment. Despite his trips to the Vatican and apparent hotline to the Pope, the real lay boss of the Catholic Church in England - following the death of the Duke of Norfolk last year - is his son Eddy Arundel.

PERCS needn't worry about encountering the PM any time soon, though.

Few of them go anywhere near Westminster Cathedral, preferring either the Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge or Farm Street in Mayfair.

There is a degree of spiritual rivalry between the two churches, if only because they are so different. The Mayfair church is run by the Jesuits, the crack "intellectual" troops of the Catholic Church, whose mission in England - since Elizabethan times - has always been to educate and influence the sons of leading Catholics, training them up to take on positions of influence in English society.

It is no coincidence that both Graham Greene and the snobbish Evelyn Waugh were Farm Street Catholics, with Greene often taking confession with various "smart" and worldly priests over a glass of malt whisky.

Posh Catholics in London are usually divided between one or other of the two addresses as their spiritual "club". I often see Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, at the six o'clock mass at Farm Street. It is also favoured by Elizabeth Hurley, whose Catholic son Damian was baptised in the upstairs "private chapel".

Every generation of PERCS has its favoured priests and today is no exception.

One of the most popular is the cigar-loving Father Antony Sutch, a Benedictine monk and former headmaster of Downside School, who performed the marriage of Catholic convert Zoe Appleyard - my Catholic goddaughter - last year (see opposite).

Other in-demand priests are Father Alexander Sherbrook, reported to have talked to the late Princess Diana about possible conversion, and Father Ronald at Brompton Oratory.

Another reason for the swelling ranks of PERCS in England is the number of English marrying Euro-society aristo or playboy types who have come over to enjoy English tax benefits. …