Boris, Carrie and the politics of weddings

31 May 2021

4:07 AM

31 May 2021

4:07 AM

Well! The PM’s nuptials have taken everyone unawares. And it’s hard not to feel that a small and informal wedding is better right now than something big and flashy next year, as per the excited coverage of the implications of his ‘save the date’ message to friends, faithfully passed onto the papers last week. Instead: a quiet ceremony in Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in England and Wales.

There is some fuss about the Catholic Church solemnising the nuptials of a twice married PM and his girlfriend. But from a strictly churchy point of view there’s nothing to stop him. He was baptised in a Catholic church in New York – an unexpected element of his life story, for his mother (whose birthday was yesterday) is a Catholic. But his Catholicism didn’t quite develop, as evidenced by his being confirmed under the Anglican church at school. ‘I’m Church of England all right’ he once said. ‘No question about it.’

Boris has famously compared his position on Christianity to Virgin Radio in the Chilterns: ‘sometimes the signal is strong, and then sometimes I’m afraid it just vanishes’. He has also said that ‘my family background is Muslim, Jewish and Christian, so I don’t find it very easy to believe exclusively in any one monotheism’. So his faith status has always been a bit vague. And as yet there is nothing to suggest things changed before his wedding yesterday: that is to say, if the Prime Minister moved back towards Catholicism.

But from the canon law aspect of the thing, it’s complicated. Boris was baptised in a Catholic church, and regardless of his renouncing the faith, his first two marriages were outside of the church and seen as invalid – see canon 1108. Matt Chinery, a canon lawyer, has explained it thusly:

What I think has happened here that the Catholic church has looked at Boris Johnson’s first two marriages (and) seen that he’s a Roman Catholic by baptism. They’ve looked at that, said ‘you are a Catholic because you were baptised Catholic, your first two weddings weren’t in a Catholic church overseen by a Catholic minister therefore the Roman Catholic church does not recognise those two marriages as valid. So in the eyes of the Catholic church Boris Johnson woke up last week as somebody who wasn’t married and had never been married and so was free to marry in the cathedral this weekend.’

(A rule change introduced in 2015 means that he may need them to be officially annulled too, but church rules are not always followed.)

He is also, according to church rules, ‘bound by natural obligations towards another party or children arising from a previous union’. So Boris would have been asked about his treatment of and provision for, his previous wives and importantly, his children. And presumably he does provide maintenance for them.

More delicately, there may have been an impediment to do with (as canon law puts it), ‘public propriety [… ] from an invalid marriage after the establishment of common life or from notorious or public concubinage’. It was hardly a secret that he has been living with Carrie Symonds – and nowadays there’s barely any public propriety to be scandalised about his complicated personal life, or his separation.

Carrie is a Catholic (with baby Wilf baptised in a Catholic church). Marriage for a Catholic is a sacrament, a symbol of the union between Christ and his church – a sacrament only afforded to Catholics who marry baptised Christians. That’s more than I had (I’m a Catholic but my husband isn’t baptised).

However, there is a little more to it than that. If you marry in a Catholic church, you must show that you are able to undertake the obligations of marriage: which include openness to new life (little Wilf may have a sibling), fidelity (forsaking all others) and permanence (an intention that this should be a lifelong union). It doesn’t mean you can’t, um, err, but it does mean you should intend on a lifelong, exclusive commitment. Doubtless both parties entered into their marriage in this spirit, but if it should turn out that they did not then under Catholic law an annulment of the marriage would in theory be possible.

The idea of a Catholic prime minister in 2021 is intriguing – especially with assisted dying back on the political horizon – but there’s nothing to suggest that Boris (a former winner of the prep school scripture prize) has actually had any epiphany. ‘Religion is a very private thing,’ he once said. Marriages, by contrast, are essentially public affairs, as he’s now finding out.

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