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LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s marriage to fiancé Carrie Symonds on Saturday surprised even his closest advisers. But perhaps the most surprising thing about the stealth ceremony was that it went by the rules.
The bride wore a flowing white dress and a crown of white flowers in her hair; the groom wears a dark suit with a boutonniere. They were married by a Catholic priest in Westminster Cathedral in London, the seat of the English Catholic Church.
This last detail is the subject of ongoing intrigue, as this is where Boris Johnson, not an altar boy, went to the altar. In Catholic circles the question simmers: How did a twice divorced man with at least one illegitimate child manage to get married in the Roman Catholic Church?
The answer is simple and unsatisfactory to some: Mr. Johnson, 56, and Ms. Symonds, 33, were both baptized Catholics. Neither of Mr. Johnson’s two previous marriages had been in the Catholic Church so the Church does not recognize them, and Ms. Symonds had never married.
According to canon law, it is cut and dried – except that Mr. Johnson was sustained a member of the Church of England as a teenager in boarding school. Then, of course, there is the problem of double standards: many other practicing Catholics who are divorced are turned away by the Church when they want to remarry, let alone same-sex couples who are Catholic.
“It’s not about whether Boris and Carrie can get married in church – they should – but why other Catholics can’t,” said Christopher Lamb, Rome correspondent for Tablet, a weekly Catholic publication. “Laws are only worth their money if they are seen as fair or consistent.”
“Boris seems to have been able to do what Henry VIII couldn’t,” emphasized Mr. Lamb. “To have the Church recognized his third marriage.”
The Church apparently overlooked Mr. Johnson’s conversion to the Anglican faith, for under canon law it is now practically impossible, once baptized, to deviate from Catholicism. (He inherited the faith from his mother.) Mr. Johnson was confirmed with his class at Eton College in the Church of England, although some students have chosen to drop out of the process.
“It would have been a thoroughly conventional thing to be affirmed,” said Andrew Gimson, Mr. Johnson’s biographer, “and Boris Johnson is a thoroughly conventional person in many ways.”
Regardless of the Prime Minister’s religious affiliation, the Diocese of Westminster said in a statement: “The bride and groom are both parishioners of Westminster Cathedral and have been baptized Catholics. All the necessary steps were taken both under civil and ecclesiastical law and all formalities were dealt with before the wedding. “
Some objected that the Church voided Mr Johnson’s 27-year marriage to Marina Wheeler, who had four children and only divorced last year, after he and Ms. Symonds moved to Downing Street. From 1987 to 1993 he was married to his first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen. They didn’t have any children.
For others, Mr Johnson’s Catholic marriage is a political career and personal life in which the normal rules don’t seem to apply.
For example, he declined to say exactly how many children he has – other than the four with Mrs. Wheeler and his one-year-old son with Mrs. Symonds, Wilfred, who was at the ceremony. Wilfred was baptized last year by the same priest, Rev Daniel Humphreys, who officiated at the wedding.
Mr Johnson is believed to have at least one other child – a daughter, Stephanie, from a relationship with an art consultant, Helen Macintyre. He is also haunted by questions about whether he did inappropriate favors to an American friend, Jennifer Arcuri, while he was Mayor of London.
The Prime Minister’s messy personal life is more mocked than reviled in 21st century Britain. As a politician, he has rarely invoked religion, and the depth of his belief is a moving target.
“It’s a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio while driving through the Chilterns,” he once said. “It kind of comes and goes.”
Mr. Gimson described Mr. Johnson as a “pre-Christian figure”, although he noted that the Prime Minister made a strikingly spiritual statement at Easter this year. Some say this could reflect Ms. Symonds’ influence.
For Britain, having a Catholic Prime Minister is a novelty in itself. Tony Blair regularly attended Catholic Mass during his tenure, but only officially converted to Catholicism after he left Downing Street.
For some Catholics the problem is less Mr. Johnson’s quirky path to the altar than the inability of other Catholics to walk the same path.
“Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were married according to the rules of the Catholic Church. And I wish them all the best,” said Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine. wrote on Twitter. “I also wish that the same compassion and compassion that have been shown to them could be extended to same-sex couples who are lifelong Catholics in recognition of their complex lives.”