THE Orange Order has offered an unprecedented invitation to the Catholic Church to attend an event celebrating its heritage and culture.

The organisation, whose existence is based on the military victory by the Protestant King William Of Orange over forces led by the Catholic King James II more than 300 years ago, is planning a full day's programme in Glasgow next June.

"Orangefest" has been billed as an "opportunity to gain an understanding of the cultural heritage and modus operandi of the Orange Lodge as a whole" and is scheduled for George Square.

The organisation is to extend an invitation to the Catholic Church, as well as the leaders of other faiths and all politicians in the city.

Although the ex-Grand Master of the Orange Lodge Ian Wilson and Archbishop Emeritus of Glasgow Mario Conti had a good relationship and met on several occasions, it was only at formal events organised by other agencies.

Authorities on sectarianism have welcomed the move as a small but symbolic step. Several sources have said it could also provide a public relations boost to the often controversial body, as well as assisting it in addressing equality and diversity issues.

The Catholic Church said it had not yet received an invitation and would consider the proposal once that had happened. Meetings have taken place with representatives of Glasgow's Muslim community.

The organisation also held a "doors open" event in Coatbridge in 2012, but has been encouraged to take similar events into more public spaces than Orange Halls.

Eddie Hyde, Grand Master of the County Grand Orange Lodge Of Glasgow, said: "We are part of the community and want to be seen as such. We are trying within the organisation to do what we can to be positive and are aware people only know us through marching.

"Of course we would be disappointed if our invitations were not accepted and this was not seen as a positive step. This is an attempt to break down some divides."

Mr Hyde added it had been his long-term aim to open up the Order further and that contact had been made with Irish heritage groups about participation in St Patrick's Day events.

Dr Michael Rosie, of Edinburgh University and a member of the Scottish Government's expert group on sectarianism, said: "The Orange Order is generally seen as an overly defensive and insular organisation, and one that, to many critics, hides a political agenda behind a veneer of religion. This initiative opens up the Orange door and focuses on building relationships. In that sense this is a brave initiative, one that emphasises the faith elements of the Order, and one that should be welcomed as a small but crucial step towards dialogue."

Dave Scott, of anti-sectarian charity Nil By Mouth, said: "Sectarianism has always been fuelled by a fear of difference and anything with the potential to help bridge this fear is worth exploring. However, if the Order wishes this idea to be taken seriously and not just seen as a publicity stunt it must also show a willingness to engage with the Catholic community within its own environment rather than simply invite them to an Order event."

Glasgow City Council said it was aware of the Order's plans, adding protocols for the use of George Square generally dealt with technical issues, such as insurance.