Can our Catholic PM be prosecuted for appointing an Anglican bishop?

Meme by the author

Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson could be described as Schrödinger’s Catholic. Born in New York and christened in the Catholic church on the wishes of his mother, Charlotte Johnson née Fawcett, his godmother Rachel Billington admitted he was never much of a churchgoer. Then at Eton he was confirmed into the Church of England. When it was announced he had married Carrie Symonds in Westminster Cathedral, there was much consternation. How was it possible a twice-divorced father of at least 6 children by three different mothers was able to marry in the Catholic church, which famously gets sniffy about divorcees re-marrying while their former spouses are still alive?

Once a Catholic, always a Catholic
Apparently, you can never renounce being Catholic. Once you’ve been dunked that’s it — you’re theirs for life. Never mind that at the age of how ever many months you didn’t have a clue what was going on and most certainly did not consent. (No wonder Johnson doesn’t have a problem with people not having given informed consent to Brexit…) Or that you joined another religion in your youth.

Now, you can get yourself excommunicated. Paying for an abortion for your mistress, as Johnson has done on a couple of occasions, used to be punishable by excommunication. But times have changed, and the golden-haired joker seems to have dodged that sanction too. He is blessed, isn’t he?

The divorcee part is a little trickier, but it is possible that since neither of Johnson’s previous marriages took place in a Catholic church, it is as if they never happened. They are not considered “sacramental”. A Catholic’s marriage to someone who has been christened in another Christian church can only be considered sacramental if they first obtain permission from their diocesan bishop. It is highly unlikely that Johnson, who was masquerading as an Anglican at the time, bothered to do that, so his two previous marriages can conveniently be declared as invalid.

This does not appear to alter the legitimacy of the children. Still, it can’t be pleasant for them when their father pretends that the relationship from which they sprang never existed. Not since Mick Jagger tried to argue that his marriage to Jerry Hall had never been legal has a rich and famous man so publicly dumped on his own children.

Catholicism and the office of prime minister

None of this has any bearing on affairs of state, but the PM being a Catholic could. It is important at the outset to mention that there is no bar on Catholics, or those of any other faith, becoming PM. However, one of the PM’s duties is to provide advice to the Monarch on senior ecclesiastical appointments in the Church of England. When a diocese (the area presided over by a bishop) falls vacant, a “vacancy-in-see committee” is set up to assess candidates. Two names are presented to the PM, who by convention (since the premiership of Gordon Brown) selects the first-named candidate and presents his or her name to the Queen. Prior to this convention, PMs sometimes selected the second-named candidate — Margaret Thatcher being a case in point. However, since Brown’s time, the new convention has so far held.

How can you have a Catholic playing a role in the appointment of Church of England Bishops? Well, you can’t. It is against the law and contravening it carries severe penalties. There are very specific limitations on a non-Anglican PM in respect of certain duties relating to the Church of England. For Catholics, the relevant provision is section 18 of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829:

No Roman Catholic to advise the Crown in the appointment to offices in the established church.

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, 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.

Oh dear! Since becoming PM in July 2019, there have been 15 new bishops, although only one was a lord spiritual (Bishop of Chelmsford), meaning they sit in the House of Lords. The Times has confirmed today that Johnson was involved in the appointment of the Bishop of Chelmsford, but claim he merely acted as a post-box, passing on a name to the Queen. Is Boris Johnson still guilty of a “high misdemeanour”? Let us examine the ways he might defend his position.

Is there any secondary legislation, not widely known of, that he can rely on to give him a get-out-of-jail-free card? No, and what’s more there is unlikely to be. Unlike so many of our modern laws, the Roman Catholic Relief Act does not contain Henry VIII clauses (giving power to ministers to change our laws with minimal, or even zero democratic scrutiny).

Some have claimed this Act was repealed by Part XIV of the Statute Law Repeals Act of 1978. It wasn’t – not in its entirety. (Only the preamble; sections 2, 5, 11, 23 and 24, plus some words in section 16 were repealed.) Indeed, it was amended by the Statute Law Revision (Northern Ireland) Act of 1980, which it could not have been, had it not still been in force. Furthermore, Standard Note SN/PC/04403 (28 February, 2008) by Linda Maer of the Parliament and Constitution Centre confirmed that the law was still in force. It concluded:

While there is no longer any statutory bar on Roman Catholics becoming Prime Minister, there are issues arising from advice on ecclesiastical preferment that is given by the Prime Minister to the Crown. Special arrangements would have to be made to ensure that he or she did not advise the Crown directly or indirectly on Church of England appointments, doing so under the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 remains a “high misdemeanour”. This particular aspect of Prime Ministerial duties could be delegated to another minister not similarly barred.

Did Boris Johnson follow this advice and delegate to another minister? There is no evidence of such delegation having occurred, at least, not in the public domain. Indeed, The Times article’s admission of his involvement in the appointment of the Bishop of Chelmsford indirectly confirms that Johnson did not recuse himself from the process and appoint another minister to participate in his stead.

Perhaps, as with him being unaware that £200,000 had landed in his bank account to pay for Carrie’s hideously expensive makeover of their Downing Street flat, Johnson will simply claim he did not know, and Lord Geidt his friendly Ethics advisor will give him a free pass — again.

How will Johnson wriggle out of this one?

You can hear Johnson rehearsing his excuses now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know the Catholic Church was a celestial Hotel California, where you can check out, but you can never leave. I thought I could denomination-hop just as readily as I bed-hop, m’lud. At the precise moment I chose candidates for those Anglican bishoprics, I was playing Schrödinger’s Catholic.”  

(I take this opportunity to remind you all that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it, unless you are the premier lawmaker in the land, the PM, and daft excuses won’t get you off either.)

Could Johnson pin his hopes on the Roman Catholic Relief Act having been repealed by the Equalities Act of 2010? Nope. The Act is still very much in force, as Downing Street itself has acknowledged. Some are suggesting the PM could rely on the Human Rights Act of 1998, or even the European Convention of Human Rights itself — both of which Johnson and the Brexiters want to destroy. Now wouldn’t that be ironic?

There isn’t some sort of slither-out, sleight-of-hand clause, like the one Johnson found to permit him to marry his third wife in a Catholic cathedral. Johnson’s fans need not worry though. Like the forked tongue of a snake, the head of our Slytherin government has a two-pronged plan. The first prong is to just brazen it out, and pretend Johnson was not Catholic when he made those recommendations.

Is this credible? To borrow some words from the old Ace standard, how long has Johnson’s “return” to Catholicism been going on? Arguably since he had his son christened at Westminster Cathedral in September 2020. The Queen confirmed the nomination of Reverend Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani in December 2020, so Johnson’s involvement in it is definitely a grey area.

A smokescreen of lies

The second prong of Number 10’s damage-limitation strategy is to create a smoke-screen of lies. “It’s an incredibly anachronistic thing that a Jew or a Muslim could nominate a bishop but not a Catholic,” they have said. One-third of that sentence is true — there is no specific bar on a Muslim nominating a bishop, simply because our legislature has never envisaged such a situation ever arising, and the possibility of it arising is still some way off, since there are not yet any Muslim contenders for leadership of a political party. (They may need to start thinking of what they would do if there were to be a Hindu PM fairly soon, though…)

Number 10 is, however, incorrect in saying there is no bar on a Jew nominating bishops. They will find such a bar in section 4 of the Jewish Relief Act of 1858:

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, Her Heirs or Successors, 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, Her Heirs or Successors, 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 or Lord Deputy, or any other Chief Governor or Governors of Ireland, touching or concerning the Appointment to or Disposal of any Office or Preferment in the United Church of England and Ireland 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.

Surely Number 10 is deliberately missing the point though? Whether or not it is anachronistic that only Catholics and Jews are barred from being involved in appointments of Anglican bishops is of merely secondary importance. The primary concern must be that it is outrageous / ridiculous that anybody not of the Anglican faith can have a say in who leads the Church of England in the first place. That’s what needs to be addressed here. While we’re at it, maybe we should review whether in this day and age it is still appropriate to have an established church…

Number 10 really haven’t thought this through, have they?