Blair in staff prayer admission

He once denied that he had prayed with former US president George Bush - but now Tony Blair has admitted he once ordered members of staff to do just that.

The former prime minister, taking part in a debate on the role of religion in public life alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, said he had done so despite the now-famous instruction from press secretary Alastair Campbell that: "You don't do God".

He told the audience of 450 people in Westminster, central London: "I remember the Salvation Army coming to see me when I was leader of the opposition.

"At the end of it, she said: 'We're all going to kneel in prayer'.

"There were two members of my office, who should remain nameless, who looked aghast. I said: 'You'll have to get on your knees'. One of them said: 'For God's sake' and I said: 'Exactly'."

Blair, who converted to Catholicism to join the same faith as his wife Cherie, added: "One of the things I loved about meeting such people in office was their unashamed proclamation of their faith."

Asked by former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, also taking part in the last of the Westminster Faith Debates, about why he did not pray with Bush - as Jeremy Paxman questioned in a Newsnight interview - Blair replied: "It wouldn't have been a wrong thing.

"It's just that it didn't happen. I'm sure that as a journalist you understand the distinction."

Mr Blair said it was vital that fellow Christians were not embarrassed about talking about their faith. He told the audience at Central Hall: "I think it's very important that we are prepared to speak up and speak out from a position of faith, that we're not afraid to say 'This is why we believe what we believe', and not be embarrassed about it or think there's something strange about saying it."

Asked by a female rabbi in the audience about the issue of women bishops, Mr Blair declined to give his own viewpoint. He said: "I think this debate will carry on within the Jewish tradition, within the Christian tradition and other traditions, but I think in the end it's a matter of where people stand and what they think about it."