Today is the Feast Day of St Boris (really). And today Boris Johnson kisses hands with the Queen (not the hand of the Queen) to become the 55th person to hold the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He is also the first baptised Roman Catholic in history to do so. The Catholic Relief Act 1829 permitted members of the Roman Catholic Church to sit in Parliament and hold government office, but it still made ascent to Number 10 nigh impossible, given Section 18:
18 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, 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.
It was (and would remain) an ecclesial-political absurdity to have a Roman Catholic Prime Minister advising the Monarch (and so appointing) Church of England Bishops: ecumenical relations are not quite so advanced as to nullify Article XXXVII: ‘The bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in this realm of England’; not even vicariously through his servant in No.10.
Of course a fudge might always have been found, but since 2008 when Gordon Brown amended (indeed, weakened) the constitutional relationship between the Church of England and the Executive, the Prime Minister and other ministers are no longer advisers, and consequently conduit, to the Crown where the Church of England is concerned: it is now the task of the Crown Nominations Commission to submit the name of a preferred candidate (and a second appointable candidate) to the Prime Minster, who is constitutionally responsible for tendering that advice directly to the Queen. This is no longer the Prime Minister’s advice, but that of the CNC: the Prime Minister’s role has been reduced to that of a postbox. Basically, the Crown Nominations Commissions is advising the Crown; ie, the Crown is advising the Crown. The Prime Minister no longer possesses the unfettered right to advise on ecclesiastical appointments, and so a crucial constitutional ‘check’ or democratic ‘balance’ has been lost (and, indeed, a theological one).
And so Gordon Brown made it a lot easier for a Roman Catholic to become Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson may have been baptised a Catholic, but he was confirmed into the Church of England during his years at Eton. While the Church of England would recognise the baptism, the Roman Catholic Church would view acceptance into the Church of England as an abandonment of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, for Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void“, and the Church of England is not a church “in the proper sense“; merely an “ecclesial community”. Boris Johnson is Roman Catholic in a CofE kind of way. If he were as orthodox as Jacob Rees-Mogg (“I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whip’s Office”), his faith would almost certainly be a political impediment to holding the office.
But all this is of little consequence, because Boris Johnson is no longer a communicant of any church; indeed, his words and actions belie any expression of the Faith, and the Bishop of Leeds has denounced him as an “amoral liar“, so apparently destined him for that place where his worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.
But today is concerned with the temporal more than the eternal; with borisology rather than soteriology. And the study of Boris is going to continue for the next 100 days or so, for he has committed (“do or die”) to leave the European Union and effect Brexit by 31st October (which happens to be Reformation Day throughout Europe). So if he does not do this, his premiership will die, and he will go down in history as shortest-serving Prime Minister in history (currently held by George Canning, on 119 days).
Most people will wish him well (by no means all [warning: sweary]), but others insist that he has “no mandate” and that 100,000 pale, stale and male Tory Party members have “inflicted” him on the nation. We live in a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential system, so Boris Johnson’s mandate stems from the majority (5,034) he won at the last General Election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip (50.8% of the vote); the majority he won in the largest party in Parliament (51%); and the majority he won amongst Conservative Party members (66%). Today the Queen will ask him if he can form a government and so command a majority in the House of Commons. For every day that the opposition party leaders don’t test this by tabling a motion of no confidence, they sustain his democratic mandate and “inflict” him on the nation. Parliament is omnipotent in this.
But Boris Johnson has a higher mandate, whether he knows it and believes and understands it or not. He has been given political authority by the authority of God mediated through the authority of Christ. From the moment he kisses hands with the Queen – the Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church of England – he is granted immediate and sufficient grounds for acting with prime-ministerial authority. St Paul wrote: ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God‘ (Rom 13:1). In a democracy, of course, you are free to agitate to overthrow and bring to end such powers, because it does not follow that all authority is an aspect of the operations of God. Democracy permits correction and rebuke through a diversity of created objects and institutions, but (for those who hear and understand) God is lurking somewhere behind those objects and moving within those institutions.
It is for us to hope and pray that Prime Minister Johnson might have his soul so quickened so as to be capable of inspiring peace, fostering reconciliation and breathing life into the confused and misdirected state we are in. There is no authority except from God.
Happy St Boris’ Day.