Should the bishops be evicted from the House of Lords?

Should the bishops be evicted from the House of Lords? January 7, 2010

WE have been asked by Paul Blanchard, Chair of the Labour Humanists, to draw readers’ attention to an important open debate about the future of the Lords Spiritual. It takes place on Wednesday, January 27 in Committee Room 10 of  the Houses of Parliament in London.
Tickets are free to the public, but need to be booked here.
Speaking in support of ridding the House of Lords of its bench of bishops will be Polly Toynbee, President of the British Humanist Association and Jonathan Bartley, Co-director, Ekklesia. Opposing it will be the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual; and Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The debate will be chaired by writer and broadcaster David Aaronovitch.

Polly Toynbee
Labour Humanists point out that:

The UK is the only Western democracy that has clerics in its parliament as of right.

And they ask:

Is their presence in the House of Lords unsupportable in a country where less than half of the people belong to Christianity, far less, the Church of England? Those opposed would point out these clerics are all men, they are unrepresentative and – despite their claims – they have no special insight or universally accepted morality to bring to the debate. They also point out that this is unfair on those of other faiths, and those of no faith. If we are to have religious leaders in our legislature, then should we not also have Islamic, Jewish, Sikh and Scientologist leaders in there too, by right?

Yet their supporters would say that as non-aligned members, their activities in the Upper House are not subject to a whip, and can be a force for good. Their presence in the Lords, supporters claim, is an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God’s word and to lead people in prayer. Bishops provide an important independent voice, and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House; and are a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.

In a statement issued last year, the National Secular Society, which has campaigned for decades for the eviction of these anachronistic squatters, said:

The increased activity of the bishops in the House of Lords – as claimed in a Theos ‘think tank’ report – gives further ammunition to the argument that the Lords Spiritual should be abolished.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said:

If the research from Theos is correct, and the bishops are becoming more active and influential in the House of Lords, then the case for getting rid of them is strengthened. The bishops claim to represent the country, but the evidence shows that they are completely out of step with the population at large. The last big push by the bishops was to defeat the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill bill, which according to opinion polls was supported by over 80 per cent of the electorate.

the Rt Revd Tim Stevens
They also use their positions as bishops to table amendments for self-serving purposes. They tabled an amendment last year to dismantle long-standing protections against discrimination against non-religious staff in publicly funded faith schools. This prejudiced the jobs or career prospects of tens of thousands of publicly funded head teachers and teaching assistants. The Church demanded and received massive exemptions from anti-discrimination employment regulations for ‘organised religion’. The exemptions were granted without consultation with those adversely affected by the exemption.

Wood pointed out that the bishops cannot possibly be representative of the country as a whole when they are all men, all from one small denomination of one particular religion representing English dioceses.

On the average Sunday less than a million people (two percent of the population) worship at the Church of England, yet this tiny denomination has 26 representatives sitting as of right in the nation’s legislature.

Wood added that Jack Straw’s argument that removing the Bishops’ Bench would be tantamount to disestablishment was incorrect.

Getting rid of the Bishops’ Bench from the upper chamber does not affect the establishment of the Church of England at all. They bishops sit there because in medieval times the church was a major landowner and its bishops were regarded as advisors to the king. Only in more modern times have they become associated with establishment and in law the two aspects are quite separate.

He concluded:

Every other Western democracy has realised the presence by right of clerics in their legislature is an affront to democracy, and the bishops’ sell-by date is long past. Jack Straw should recognise that if he wants to truly modernise the House of Lords, such anachronisms will have to be eliminated. The reality is that the Government, or perhaps Mr Blair, has given the churches practically everything they have asked for, and are now running scared of removing the bishops.

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  • sailor1031

    …” If we are to have religious leaders in our legislature, then should we not also have Islamic, Jewish, Sikh and Scientologist leaders in there too, by right?”
    This is surely a dangerous argumentthat could so easily backfire and result in all kinds of religio-nuts in the Lords. Better to make the case that no other private corporation has 26 of its executives as members of the Lords by right, so this CofE special privilege should be abolished immediately. The best case would be the total abolition of the house of lords and its membership, to be replaced by an elected senate.

  • I wonder if there is any chance of this appearing on BBCi or Youtube?
    If anyone finds it anywhere, please post.
    Of course, the presence of the bishops in the Lords is an affront to democracy. It pisses me off nearly as much as faith schools.
    David B

  • H. Davids

    I doubt some of the more extreme representatives of Islam would be welcome, even though they too could claim to have rights to be there. But it’s all about status quo, which is all part of party politics. Kicking the bishops out might be followed by a very good look at the monarchy and could the ‘democratic’ parties handle that one?

  • Well, actually, as the great majority of the Lords Spiritual do not come from political or privileged backgrounds, they stand as a reproof to the rest of the House of Lords!
    Removing the bishops could have a mildly adverse effect making the ‘upper’ House more political, a little less independent. Removing the bishops as a block would, however, focus attention on reform of the House as a whole.
    The Commons of course, would not want a wholly elected upper house as this would diminish their powers – unless they deliberately emasculated the Lords. But then, electing representatives to the upper House would not be worth the effort (from the electorate’s point of view). And I don’t see the US Congress/Senate model being much of an advert either.

  • Perspix

    How about allocating the number of “Lords Spiritual” according to the census data? X number of Xtians, X number of Muslims, X number of Jedi Knights, X number of “Atheist/Agnostic” etc.

  • I agree with Perspix… let them have some appointees but based on how many people are registered as that “denomination” in the next census…and then we have a huge push to have the classifications changed so that in order to say you’re a Christian you have to prove you go to church 51 weeks a year, same for muslims etc…and then atheists and “others” would get the majority of the seats and have some sense in the Upper House.
    I think a few people I know would look good in red robes with ermine trims 🙂

  • Sean

    Cheers for the tip, just ordered my ticket!

  • Stonyground

    There are Bishops out there with such batty beliefs that I personally don’t want them influencing decisions that may effect my life. The Bishop of Carlisle claiming that granting equal rights to gay people causes bad weather for example.

  • Broga

    Stonyground. The Bishop of Carlisle is seriously off the wall. He has been working to remove some curse he found on an ancient stone and, once that is lifted, no doubt he will lead his flock to the sunlit uplands where, I suppose, he will be the head honcho and the sun will always shine.

  • Michael Trussler

    I think there is a danger in our discussion here of cat-herding: the proposal that we nominate new Lords on the basis of their ‘religious beliefs’, in a number proportionate to those ‘religious beliefs’ held by the – and I will deliberately, though mistakenly use the word ‘electorate’ is erroneous.
    The majority would, as @Petursey says, be non-religious as the greatest number of people in the country do not regularly attend a religious service frequently enough.
    So we will be left choosing someone to represent someone else’s interests based on their shared unbelief in a huge number of possible ideas..
    This is nonsensical. We might as well choose candidates based on our common unbelief in salt being thrown over the shoulder chasing the devil away, or take a quick survey of whether people think there’s a ghost under their bed..
    To select someone to be a representative based on a negative, or the lack of an opinion is pointless and farcical – as people pretending to be intelligent for at least part of the day, we would have to select them on other positive opinions that we jointly shared, and possibly gauge the relative strengths of these merits by polling the public every few years and….
    oh no – I see what I did there, I proposed that the Lords actually be elected by those they represent – they’ll never go for that.
    As you were.

  • OurSally

    I am wholly in favour of this.
    But if they do get kicked out what is to prevent the next wingnut prime minister from making them peers in their own right? Peers are for life and the bishops presumably have to leave when they retire.
    If at least part of the upper house was elected the bishops could stand for election, and one who is perceived as suitable by the electorate could be elected anyway. On the other hand, an elected upper house could be filled up with fundies of every religion.
    Hmm. Not so easy.

  • gsw

    Since England is a constitutional monarchy, with the Queen as titular Head of the Church of England, the bishops in the House actually represent our Queen.
    Much as I, as an atheist, would like to see religion banned from our shores, I am also a pragmatist. Having representatives of the Queen’s church (CofE is currently the most innocuous religion) in the House, carries a statement, thereby reducing the power of other religions to enforce their religion based laws.
    Since we have spent the last few hundred years stripping the CofE of most of its power, let us go one step further: The Bishops in the House should be there in a representative and reporting capacity only. With no vote.
    To throw them out into the cold during the current political & religious climate would be to create a vacuum which will immediately be filled by special-privilege schrieking other-religionsts.
    Better by far to retain the bishops, with their power removed, as a statement of solidarity with the Queen and the English constitution.
    Should the age of reason ever dawn, there will be no more need of them.

  • andrea

    my own preference would be to keep the upper house and have them appoint new members based on their relevant experience in fields such as technology, the sciences and law. The bishops would of course be welcome – as long as they have a relevant field of expertise. Moralistic moaning would not count. The benefits of having a committee of experts to check the detail of new laws should not be casually thrown out. Having them politically and religiously neutral would surely be fairer on everyone

  • Neuseline

    Some of you here may remember my short video on Youtube (embedded on this site for a bit)
    “Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor speaks with Roger Bolton on BBC Radio The extraordinary statement by the Cardinal that secularists and atheists are not fully human. And showing the face of rosmarinusofficialis for the first time ever. If you don’t want the Cardinal to be elevated to a peerage please sign the petition at:
    Added: Fri 27 Mar 2009 09:12:13 PDT Time: 0:58 Raw File: n0LGa7p6gY05bxf6 Broadcast: Public Rejected (content inappropriate) Views: 37,870 Rating: Comments: 358 Responses: 0 ”
    Without notifying me Youtube removed the video. Just before xmas they offered me a revenue share on it!!!!! but then could not find an advertiser.
    “Responses: 0” In fact, I had two response videos from sympathizers. Public Rejected can only mean that a Catholic lobby flagged my video. Still, it had a good run. I suppose it is too much to hope that the Cardinal’s utterances were judged “inappropriate”.

  • Michael Trussler

    “The extraordinary statement by the Cardinal that secularists and atheists are not fully human”..
    I think he must have stumbled onto some rationalist/skeptic/atheists website, and mis-read some description of its proponents there as ‘humanISH’…