The curious case of Boris and the bishops

27 October 2021

3:30 AM

27 October 2021

3:30 AM

Back in July the wedding of Boris and Carrie at Westminster Cathedral prompted Steerpike’s diligent colleague Robert Peston to ask a personal – but constitutionally important – question: is the PM a Catholic? As the head of government in a country with an established church, the Prime Minister and his office are intimately involved in deciding who runs the Church of England via his role in the appointment of bishops.

Some premiers of course have relished their role in the ecclesiastical process. When appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1961, Harold Macmillan was said to have been urged by the incumbent Geoffrey Fisher not to appoint Michael Ramsay as his successor on the grounds that: ‘I have known him all his life – I was his headmaster at Repton.’ Macmillan shot back: ‘You may have been Dr Ramsay’s headmaster but you weren’t mine.’

Macmillan’s own successor Jim Callaghan later formalised the process in 1976 under which the Church would establish a small standing committee – later known as the Crown Appointments Commission. It would come up with a shortlist of two names for each vacant see, and the Prime Minister would recommend one of those names to the Queen. But he could choose to forward either of the candidates submitted to him or ask for an entirely new set of names.

Indeed some 20 years later, the (then) Anglican Tony Blair precipitated a miniature constitutional crisis a month after taking office when he vetoed the Church of England’s nominee for the Bishopric of Liverpool. Blair of course later converted to Catholicism – but only after he’d left office, amid reports that it was to avoid possible clashes such as over his role in appointing Church of England bishops.  Johnson’s faith though remains a mystery, with Peston suggesting a contingency plan in the event any PM is not an Anglican, whereby such duties would transfer to the Lord Chancellor.

But now a Freedom of Information request by Benjamin Lewis has revealed that contrary to such reports, the position of the PM remains unchanged. Asked for the identity of which minister advised – in any sense – Her Majesty on a raft of recent ecclesiastical appointments, No. 10 has responded by claiming that:

Under reforms introduced in 2007 by the then Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister does not choose or advise on Church appointments. His or her role is confined to conveying the name of the nominated candidate to The Queen.

This suggests that the Prime Minister’s position has remained unchanged throughout Boris Johnson’s premiership. As Lewis wrote: ‘The Downing Street position would seem to be that the PM has become a mere conduit for a single name, and that this doesn’t constitute advice, so that it doesn’t matter in practice.’ Still, such ‘reforms’ by Gordon Brown of course were merely a White Paper introduced by his government. While Brown’s successors have so far (seemingly) been content to follow his lead, it essentially amounts to a voluntary restriction on their part.

Moreover, as others have suggested, the Sovereign is meant to act on the advice of the Ministry to ensure political responsibility. Callaghan himself said at the time of the Crown Appointments Commission, the ‘Sovereign must be able to look for advice on a matter of this kind and that must mean, for a constitutional Sovereign, advice from Ministers.’

What does all this mean in practice? Well, whatever Johnson does in office, it looks like the days of PMs being (technically) able to meddle in ecclesiastical matters are not done just yet. <//>

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