Have the Lords Spiritual – otherwise known as the Bishops in the House of Lords – finally brought a long-overdue examination of their role in the House of Lords, at the heart of our political establishment?
By tabling a wrecking amendment to the Government’s Welfare Bill, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds has brought much attention on the role, and legitimacy, of him and his Spiritual colleagues in the House of Lords. Secular groups around the country have reacted with rage that it was a Bishop that was responsible for the derailment of the Government’s plans, not because they necessarily side with the Government, but because the amendment that halted the Government’s progress came from a man who sits in the House of Lords owing to his position in a single denomination of a single religion.
The Lords Spiritual have sat in the House of Lords since the 1300s. After around seven hundred years of service, surely now is the time to retire them – permanently – from the upper house of the British Parliament? Why are they there?
According to the Church of England website: “Their presence in the Lords 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, while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.”
Pardon? Just read that again.
The Church of England is effectively saying that the Lords Spiritual are present in the Lords as part of their work to preach their religion. This is of no legislative value whatsoever. There is a time and a place to preach religion. The time is often flexible, but for Bishops the place should be in the churches up and down the country. The business of the country is the only matter that ought to be attended to in either chamber of Parliament, not the propagation of a single religion and its implementation in public policy. It is rather hilarious for the CofE to state the obvious when they say the Lords Spiritual do not claim to directly represent anyone; it would have been most presumptuous to assume they did, seeing as they were not even elected. The thing which troubles me most in their explanation, however, is their assertion that the Bishops seek “to be a voice for all people of faith.” And what of those with none? Atheists, agnostics and the otherwise non-religious have no specialised automatic representation for themselves in the Lords, it appears, despite their ever-increasing numbers among the British public.
It appears the House of Lords is unbalanced. Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, recently wrote “we have the scandal of bishops of one particular denomination (a very small and shrinking one at that) who can directly interfere with law making.”
A scandal indeed – one which the Government should be determined to stop.
However, that’s not how the Church of England views it. According to the BBC, a spokesman has said: “We would quite like to see representatives from other faiths in the House. That’s been part of our official position for at least a decade.”
Which faiths? How many representatives? Who decides? And how?
More unelected religious figures wielding power in a chamber of Parliament? What is this? A theocracy?
No! Stop! Enough! The Church of England is proposing the exact opposite of what should be happening – we need no religious representatives in the upper House, not more of them.
If religious people care that deeply about seeing their beliefs enacted into public policy, they should either lobby the political party closest to their views to adopt appropriate policy or form their own parties and contest elections. What the Church of England is proposing would take this country back past the year 1847 at the earliest when the number of Bishops in the Lords was reduced.
What right does anyone have to sit there by virtue of their place within a religious institution that neither draws upon nor bestows any democratic legitimacy? I mean, why not give Yoda a seat in the Lords too?
The presence of the Bishops in the Lords constitutes a modern-day democratic scandal. The Lords are unelected anyway – an un-mandated nest of political appointees who haven’t won a seat in years if not decades, and some who haven’t even won a seat at all – but the presence of religious figures in 2012 is surely doubly absurd, and brings into question what role our political class still thinks the Bishops have.
If we want industry leaders, subject experts and grand elder statesmen involved in Parliament, get them in on the Committees. But even if they don’t have a seat in Parliament or on the Committees, there’s nothing to prevent them from having a say or contacting present party leaders to give their views.
The same at least partially applies to Bishops. I believe in the separation of Church and State, but if religious figures of any faith must get involved with politics, they ought to do it just like the rest of the population: lobby, stand for election etc.
The presence of the Lords Spiritual goes deeper than some simple and quaint tradition. It represents a position of privilege and power for the Church of England in the affairs of this country. It cannot be allowed to continue. We as a people are largely aware of our country’s Christian past, but that does not in any way mean we should continue to perpetuate the influence of the Church in our nation’s future. This is not the Middle Ages, this is the 21st Century. Political authority no longer resides de facto or de jure with the Church, nor should it.
Get the Bishops out of the Lords – and pray do it quickly!
Should the Church of England have a say in British politics? Is the presence of religious figures in the House of Lords undemocratic? Does this add further weight to the case for an elected second chamber? Would you like to see the removal of the right of Bishops to sit in the House of Lords?
Joe Anthony is an “occasional” political activist with a deep interest in politics, current affairs and elections. He describes himself as a “moderate libertarian”.