By Mark Michael
Breaking religious conventions is nothing new for Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, whose recent decision to have his young son Wilfred baptized at London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, skirts close to an 1829 rule that bans Catholics from performing one of the traditional duties of his office.
Johnson himself is the first prime minister to have been baptized a Catholic (though he was confirmed as an Anglican while a student at Eton). Wilfred’s mother, 32-year-old Carrie Symonds, who is a Roman Catholic, is also the first unmarried partner of a prime minister to reside at historic 10 Downing Street.
The child, whose full name is Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson is Johnson’s sixth child and Symonds’ first, and was born on April 29. His third name Nicholas, Johnson had announced earlier, is a tribute to two doctors, Nicholas Hart and Nicholas Prince, who he says saved his life when he was suffering with COVID-19 at London’s St. Thomas Hospital.
The Archdiocese of Westminster confirmed the boy’s baptism in a public statement, noting that the private service was “attended by both parents and a small number of guests, in keeping with current (Covid-19) guidelines.” The baptism was conducted by the Rev. Daniel Humphreys, acting administrator of the cathedral. The archdiocese released the statement to disprove allegations by some media outlets that the prime minister had been holidaying in Italy at the time, as a second surge of coronavirus cases was beginning to sweep the country.
A series of harsh anti-Roman Catholic penal laws were passed in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially after Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I in 1570. Though Catholic worship gradually became tolerated, the 1673 Test Act restricted civil and military office in England to communicant Anglicans until the early 19th century.
The 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act allowed Catholics to be elected to parliament. The government of Lord Wellington, the then-prime minister, considered, but ultimately refused, to restrict them from serving as prime minister. But section 18 of the law did forbid Catholics from advising the monarch on appointments in the established Churches of England and Scotland, an important part of the prime minister’s role at the time. Section 18 states, in part,
“It shall not be lawful for any person professing the Roman Catholic religion directly or indirectly to advise his Majesty… touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the Church of England or the Church of Scotland.” Anyone convicted of breaking the law, it adds, shall “be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.”
The queen’s official role in the Church of Scotland is now limited mainly to appointing a Lord High Commissioner to represent her at the church’s general assembly (the current officer holder is her grandson, Prince William). But the crown continues to appoint bishops, cathedral deans, and other senior office holders in the Church of England (though a candidate nominated by the crown must still be formally elected by the diocesan college of canons, and granted jurisdiction by one of the archbishops).
A 2008 reform of the appointments process by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown shifted practically all advisory responsibility for church positions to the Crown Nominations Committee, a mostly elected body of 14 clergy and laity. The prime minister still must personally deliver the name of the candidate to the queen. A work-around could be arranged, should the prime minister become a Roman Catholic, with one commentator quipping that under the current system, “the Prime Minister’s role has been reduced to that of a postbox.”
Still, the tradition of a Protestant prime minister remains strong. Though he often attended mass with his Roman Catholic wife Cherie while in office, former Prime Minister Tony Blair waited until a year after he left office in 2007 to be received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Johnson’s friend Stuart Reid, who served as deputy editor under him at The Spectator told the Catholic News Agency that he believed Johnson had made his decision carefully. “Boris is not the most obvious Christian in Westminster, but having his child by the Catholic Carrie baptized into the Church is almost certainly not something he did in a fit of irony. He leaves irony for Downing Street. What Boris has done, it seems, is to yield to his wife, as a good husband should. But there may be something more to it.”
Asked what that something more might be, Reid nodded to the fitness regimen Johnson had undertaken since his springtime recovery from COVID-19 and added, “It is very difficult to understand what is going on here, but the child has been baptized and that is a good thing. It is possible that in the fullness of time even Boris will swim the Tiber. He is looking pretty trim these days.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Roman Catholics are forbidden from serving as prime minister. This has been corrected, and additional clarifications have been made about the process for choosing bishops and other senior office holders. Thanks to Dr. Colin Podmore, former clerk to the General Synod of the Church of England, for his invaluable assistance in clarifying points of British constitutional and English canon law.