A few days’ ago, in the wake of the wedding to Carrie Symmonds in Westminster Cathedral, someone asked me whether Boris was the first Catholic in number 10.
It is an interesting question and there is not a simple answer as, indeed, is the canon law that does not recognise his earlier marriages as sacramental because they did not take place in a catholic church and, so, permits a twice married and twice divorced man to marry a third time in a church while other catholics are denied.
Boris is not alone, however, in being a world leader to marry in a catholic church after a speedy divorce but the optics are not great. The Emperor Napoleon, after all, did this when he married Princess Marie-Louise and dumped Josephine. More recently, Newt Gingrich -not quite a world leader but- married his third wife Callista (Greek= most beautiful or best) who was later appointed as US ambassador to the Vatican.
Firstly, Boris’s religious background is complex. His maternal Great grandfather, Elias Avery Lowe, was Jewish and, to his credit, this has led him to give short-shrift to anti-semitism in any form. In 2007, Boris said this, “I feel Jewish when I feel the Jewish people are threatened or under attack, that’s when it sort of comes out,” Johnson said. “When I suddenly get a whiff of anti-Semitism, it’s then that you feel angry and protective.”
Secondly, however, if on the one hand, his maternal line is jewish, his paternal line, on the other hand, is muslim. His father’s grandfather, Ali Kemal, was a minister in the Ottoman empire and was murdered by a mob during the Turkish war of independence in 1922. As a result of the assassination, Osman Ali Wilfred (Stanley Johnson’s father) was educated and raised in the UK by his english grandmother Margaret and took her maiden-name. I wonder at what point, if ever, he abandoned Islam?
Boris’s mother, however, is catholic as is his wife and his godmother is Lady Rachel Billington, the daughter of Lord Longford, a formidable catholic matriarch.
He will, therefore, be able to greet Pope Francis who is attending the Glasgow UN Climate change summit as the nation’s first baptised catholic leader since the reformation.
Of course, Michael Gove claimed that Theresa May was actually the first catholic to inhabit number 10: he was wrong, of course- she was an anglo- catholic and the daughter of Hubert Brasier, a vicar. Gove might as well have pointed out – with more justification- that Tony Blair was a communicant in Westminster cathedral (a catholic, in other words in all but name) before, on quitting office, he was formally recieved into the Catholic church in 2007. Blair’s casual inter-communion caused some trouble and, despite receiving communion directly from Pope John Paul II in the pontiff’s private chapel, the then Cardinal Hume was obliged to (publicly) tell Blair to stop. Communion is a sign of belonging which is why inter-communion is seen to be such an issue in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Indeed, the pope’s private secretray, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, said, at the time, that the Pope understood Blair was a Catholic in his heart.
The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 allowed catholics (but not priests- until the law was ammended in 2001) to sit in the commons and Rees Mogg is a good example of this as was Norman St John Stevas, both entertaining leaders of the house and the latter responsible for introducing the committee system. But Section 18 of the same act made it impossible for a Catholic or, indeed, a Jew (like Disraeli who was baptised into the Anglican church at the age of 12) to advise the monarch on appointments to the established church. In principle, this prohibition about advising the Queen on new bishops – a matter on which she is formally responsible but since the 18th Century, has seen her powers to appoint bishops transferred to the Prime minister, has not been repealed and is, therefore, still in force so Boris should take care. The current practice, a custom and not a law, allows the Crown Nominations Commission to nominate a bishop who is then nodded through by the PM and recommended to the Queen, but there is nothing, in principle, and in law to stop Mr Johnson interferring in the process of episcopal appointment should he wish to do so. It could cause a constitutional crisis!
This is the text of section 18:
It shall not be lawful for any person professing the Roman Catholic religion directly or indirectly to advise his Majesty, or any person or persons holding or exercising the office of guardians of the United Kingdom, or of regent of the United Kingdom, under whatever name, style, or title such office may be constituted, or the lord lieutenant of Ireland, touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the Church of England, or in the Church of Scotland; and if any such person shall offend in the premises he shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.
There is a getout option which would require legislation but the principle of that getout option is already on the statute books in the form of the Lord Chancellor (Tenure of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act of 1974 which allows “another Minister of the Crown” to carry out the Lord Chancellor’s ecclesiastical functions if the Lord Chancellor’s office is held by a Roman Catholic.
What makes it a bit more complex is that, while he was at Eton, Boris was confirmed into the Anglican church. So he is also, by virtue of the Anglican sacrament, a communicant member of the Anglican church unless he has been since chrismated in Westminster cathedral in preparation for his wedding.
Had Ed (Ted) Miliband won his election in 2015 , then he might have been caught by another comparable law drawn up in 1858 which, after a ten-year struggle, allowed Jewish MPs (and specifically Lionel de Rothschild) to take their seats in the commons but, as with the catholic emancipation laws, also banned Jewish Prime ministers from advising the crown on matters linked to the appointment of bishops:
Rights of Presentation to any Ecclesiastical Benefice possessed by Persons professing the Jewish Religion to devolve upon the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Time being.
Where any right of presentation to any ecclesiastical benefice shall belong to any office in the gift or appointment of Her Majesty, and such office shall be held by a person professing the Jewish religion, the right of presentation shall devolve upon and be exercised by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the time being; and] it shall not be lawful for any person professing the Jewish religion, directly or indirectly, to advise Her Majesty, or any person or persons holding or exercising the office of guardians of the United Kingdom, or of Regent of the United Kingdom, under whatever name, style, or title such office may be constituted, or the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland], touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the Church of England or in the Church of Scotland; and if such person shall offend in the premises, he shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.
Finally, while it is only Jews and Catholics who are specifically banned from advising about these appointments, the Appointments’ Secretary must, by law, be an Anglican.