Let the bishops take on Boris: or are they ‘clerical fossils’?

By Andrew Pierce in THE TABLET, 24 July 2019

One enduring public image of Theresa May’s premiership will be her faded smile for photographers as she arrived at St Mary’s church in her Maidenhead constituency. The vicar’s daughter has never made any secret of her  Christian faith. “I am a practising member of the Church of England and that lies behind what I do,” she said in November 2016.

Any photographers waiting to pounce on Boris Johnson as he goes to church may have a long wait. He rarely attends Sunday (or any other day) service. In a rare pronouncement on God and religion, he said in 2015 it would be “pretentious” to suggest that he is a “serious practising Christian” even though he “thinks about religion a lot”. He once said his faith “comes and goes” like the radio reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns.

As a Catholic who rarely makes it to Confession, I am amused by the idea of Johnson kneeling before a priest and asking for absolution for his sins before he begins his job as PM in earnest. The unlucky priest chosen to hear his Confession would have to give up a big part of his day (almost as big a part of his day as he would sacrifice if I were to be the penitent). There is a long litany of Johnson sins. The charge sheet against him is well rehearsed by his political enemies. They refer to him as a serial liar, philanderer, and shirker. He was fired from his job as a reporter for The Times for making up quotes. The complainant was the Oxford historian Colin Lucas – his godfather, no less.

He was sacked by Michael Howard as a shadow culture spokesman in 2004 for lying about an affair with the writer Petronella Wyatt. He is divorcing his second wife Marina, mother of his four children, after 25 years of marriage. They are said to be furious with their father for humiliating and betraying their mother by embarking on yet another relationship, this time with Carrie Symonds. The new Prime Minister is 55; Miss Symonds, a former Tory party apparatchik, is 31.

The political negatives that require forgiveness are extensive too. As Mayor of London – he defied political gravity by winning the Labour-leaning capital twice – he played to the gallery with vanity projects such as the garden bridge, which was cancelled, without a brick being laid, at a cost to the taxpayer of £45 million. As Mayor he courted controversy by banning a Christian advertising campaign on London buses promoting the idea that gay people can be converted to heterosexuality. He was one of the first Tories to support same-sex marriage, to the fury of many Tories.

As Foreign Secretary, he is best known for blundering over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The mother-of-one has been wrongly jailed for spying while visiting her parents in Tehran in 2016. Johnson told a Commons committee the following year that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching people journalism”. The erroneous claim was seized on by Iranian officials as evidence that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime”. Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe has always maintained that she was visiting relatives in Iran when she was arrested; Johnson was forced to apologise. Ratcliffe, who has been mounting a high-profile campaign to secure his wife’s release, is adamant that Johnson is the reason she’s still behind bars. The detention is now being played out against heightened tensions over the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, during the 16 hustings in the Tory leadership campaign, the two shortlisted candidates, Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, were asked about abortion. Hunt wants to lower the legal limit for abortion to 12 weeks; Johnson argued for no change. No one asked them about their religious faith. Yet we knew all about David Cameron’s views on religion.  He has said he has found greater strength in religion, and even suggested Britain should be unashamedly “evangelical” about the Christian faith. Cameron had previously borrowed Johnson’s comparison with the fitful reception of Magic FM to describe his beliefs.

Yet, as Johnson prepares to knuckle down to the huge task ahead of him, the silence from Church leaders has been deafening. Has no bishop or senior cleric got strong views on Johnson’s suitability to be Prime Minister? Or on his personal morality? I fear that bishops are surrendering their role as moral guardians because of the public revulsion over the failure of the Church to deal with the the sexual abuse of minors by some predatory priests.

Or am I being uncharitable? We all have crumpled lives. Have the Church authorities come to the conclusion that it’s not their job to judge the faults of others? The Christian faith teaches us that if we turn to God, we will be forgiven, whoever we are, and however grisly our sins. But shouldn’t those who stand for public office be held to a higher standard?

George Orwell writes of “upper-class English voices”. He goes on: “A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing … people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.” Orwell could have been describing his fellow old Etonian Johnson.

So at a time when the country is calling out for strong leadership, after the muddle and indecision of the Theresa May years, the Tory party membership has decided the answer is Boris Johnson, our twentieth old Etonian Prime Minister.

Central to our Christian creed is forgiveness. But my understanding of forgiveness is that it invites repentance. Has Johnson repented? Has anyone in the Church asked him? Does anyone in the higher echelons of the Church have a view about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson? They certainly should have. Or are the 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords cowed because in 2015 Johnson described them as “clerical fossils”. It’s time the fossils spoke out.

Andrew Pierce is a columnist and consultant editor for the Daily Mail.

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