There is a popular misconception among Catholics in Britain and the United States that a Catholic cannot become Prime Minister of Britain. In fact, this is not the case. When the various anti-Catholic laws were established in Britain, the specific office of Prime Minister did not exist. (Sir Robert Walpole [1676-1745] was the first Prime Minister). There is no technical reason why the Sovereign should not send for a Catholic to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Where is Boris Johnson in this? According to a recent feature in the Spectator, he was baptized a Catholic as a baby, his godmother being Rachel Billington, a member of the staunchly Catholic Longford family. However, Johnson was subsequently raised as an Anglican and confirmed in that tradition at school at Eton.
Famously unfaithful to the Christian understanding of marriage—he is currently going through his second divorce and has a much-publicized live-in relationship with a young woman—Johnson is strongly informed by the Christian tradition and knowledgeable on Church history. He is quite aware of the reality of the central role of Christianity in the story of the West, and of the absurdity of pretending that any other religion, including current secularism, has any remotely similar role. Yet he openly admits the deeply inconsistent nature of his faith, saying, “I suppose my own faith is a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you’re driving through the Chilterns; it sort of comes and goes.”
Johnson’s public support for same-sex marriage has been backed by open enthusiasm and endorsement of marches and rallies organized by lesbian and homosexual lobby groups. As Mayor of London he gave the fullest possible support for these, and has continued this with vigor as both member of Parliament and columnist. Christian groups would place him in the wholly negative category on pro-life or pro-family issues.
In his speech in front of 10 Downing Street, on returning from Buckingham Palace having accepted his appointment from the Queen, Johnson delivered an upbeat affirmation of Britain’s place in the world and hopes for the future and of the need to improve education and raise standards across the country. He indicated that the major requirement was money. It would be good if he would in due course indicate that substantial funds could be saved by blocking the grants made to lobby groups promoting lesbian, homosexual and “transgender” programs in schools. And it would be great to see some understanding of the link between broken families—notably those where there is no marriage and children have to endure a series of complicated relationships with maternal boyfriends—and youth crime.
Should we hope for any of this? Probably not. But there is perhaps some hope for the occasional bout of commonsense, at least in general statements, following the appointment of Priti Patel as Home Secretary: she comes from a strong united family (refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda) and has frequently spoken of the importance and value of family life.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s sense of history is notable and important. Recently, researching the story of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, I came across a feature on St Mellitus, who was appointed Bishop of London following the successful mission of St Augustine and his monks to England on the initiative of Pope St Gregory at the end of the sixth century. The feature drew a vivid picture of post-Roman London: the Saxon invaders who had arrived as the Roman Empire crumbled were pagans with few, if any, architectural skills and lived in and among the old Roman buildings.
The author of the piece described visiting the present St Paul’s Cathedral:
When Mellitus arrived at the place where I now stood, he saw a post-apocalyptic landscape for a proud Roman. In my mind’s eye I erased the buses and the tourists and the Costa coffees, and could see London as it appeared in 604. The baths and the amphitheatre were wrecked, and swine were kept in the atria of the old villas. The governor’s palace had tumbled to the ground, and huge tracts of the city — where once tens of thousands of ambitious Roman Londoners had lived and dreamed — were covered in black earth…
When Mellitus arrived, he found almost no evidence of the Christian presence. But he had a plan. He gazed about himself there on the top of Ludgate hill, and his eye settled on a dilapidated Roman temple. That would do, he thought…
Somewhere on the site of what is now our cathedral, Mellitus persuaded the king (whose wife, as luck would have it, had Christian leanings) to allow him to construct a church. In the ruins of what had been a temple of Diana, he built a simple wooden nave and dedicated it to St Paul. Christianity was back in the soil of London – albeit only precariously. Following the death of two of his most important Saxon patrons, Mellitus was driven out of London, never to return.
In time, though, Mellitus’ legacy was to prove astonishing. That frail wooden Church of St Paul’s was to become the symbol of national deﬁance during the Blitz; and to this day, the glimpses of St Paul’s are so sacred to Londoners that they are protected by elaborate viewing corridors. No building may impede the sight of the dome from Richmond Hill, Primrose Hill and other high spots around the city.
…Imagine if he had never founded St Paul’s, or replanted the tender bloom of faith in the blackened soil of post-Roman London. Imagine if the British elite had continued – to this day – to swear by brooks and glades and rocks, and not by Jesus Christ.
The author of the piece, of course, was Boris Johnson; the piece itself was an excerpt from his 2012 book Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World.
Johnson knows perfectly well that the essence of our civilization is that we do not live as pagans, but have a coherent understanding of God, and hence an ability and desire to live as humans created in God’s image. We can and do create and build: churches and schools and ships and hospitals, factories and farms and machines and bridges, things of beauty and methods of healing, books and music and art, and the means of organizing ourselves without resort to gang warfare. If we want a Britain that sustains a rule of law, with the freedom for real human flourishing, we must give full freedom for the Christian faith, and not pretend that it is an optional extra to our deliberations.
I hope he keeps that thought in mind.
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