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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