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Bishops in the Lords – an unholy row

7 min read

The Church of England is one of the most active third sector organisations in the United Kingdom. But do its leaders deserve a special place in Parliament? Lord Taverne and the Bishop of Durham have opposing views

FOR: The Bishop of Durham

It is an extraordinary responsibility to attend Parliament. As bishops, our faith compels us to raise questions with those in power about people on the margins, children, the voiceless, the many attacks on human rights abroad, and solutions to the climate emergency. 

We are not there to simply defend the interests of the established church, or speak only for people of faith, but to play our own part in holding our elected powers to account on behalf of those who need us most, and help the process of making better law. 

We have been at the forefront of recent campaigns in Parliament on justice for leaseholders facing fire safety costs, on prison reform, welfare of migrants and refugees, and on harms caused by gambling. 

Our work as Lords Spiritual is an extension of our service to the nation

To those who argue that religion should keep out of politics, as Christians we look to the example of Jesus Christ, who did not fail to challenge those in authority when the needs of those on the margins were ignored. 

Our work as Lords Spiritual is an extension of our service to the nation in parishes, schools, chaplaincy and charitable work, as the established Church of England. There will be few MPs unaware of the impact of churches and other faiths in their communities, acting as social glue. 
We are summoned by the Queen to attend the Lords; a tradition dating back to the very first Parliaments. But as our constitution has evolved, so has the role of bishop and the relationship between church and state. 

First, we are spiritual leaders. At the start of each sitting we lead the House of Lords in prayer; we bring insights to debates based on our spiritual and constitutional roles, and the needs of the regions our dioceses cover. For me this is the north-east of England, a part of the country not well represented in the Lords.

We are independent members, not a party, and we don’t follow a whip. Unlike other members, our numbers are capped at 26 and we retire from the House when we leave office as a bishop. 

 A Parliament with no room for those voices would be a diminished one

Because of its establishment, the Church of England remains accountable to Parliament, which must approve its laws. In the House of Commons an MP acts as a formal representative who can be questioned by MPs of any party. Service and accountability are then as much a feature of this modern relationship with the state, as are historic and constitutional precedent. 

We live in a multi-faith society, which has a famously unwritten constitution. Our national character and culture is still informed and enriched by the existence of an established Church of England and an anointed head of state who serves as our supreme governor. 

But it often feels as though those who would do away with the Lords Spiritual have a view of church and state that is stuck in the disestablishment politics of the 19th century. If we started over, would we start from here? That is not the point. The story of these islands, like our constitution, ever evolving and unfolding, has brought us here. 

Far from being a medieval hangover, bishops, like the non-aligned crossbench peers, might actually point us towards a vision of what a reformed Lords might look like; a forum wherein non-partisan civil society from all four nations can gather and participate in the legislative affairs of the country, whether from our charitable, industrial, educational, cultural or faith sectors. 

A Parliament with no room for those voices would be a diminished one, in which full-time appointed professional politicians would dominate. A reformed Lords, as a forum for all UK civil society, with service, experience and expertise at its heart, taking the best of the past and matching it with what is good of the present, would place the interests of the people rather than parties at the centre of our shared debates. It would be an even greater benefit to Parliament and to our United Kingdom. 

AGAINST: Lord Taverne, Liberal Democrat peer

One of the most notable achievements of the Enlightenment was the separation of church and state. In the countries where they were separated, it generally promoted democracy, tolerance and freedom – except, of course, where the state itself became the new religion. 

Where religion and politics continue to be inextricably mixed, the results are generally disastrous. Conflict between Sunni and Shia, for example, has torn the Middle East apart. Wherever theocracy rules, democracy and liberty are suppressed. 

In the United Kingdom, separation of church and state is incomplete. The House of Lords, where 26 Anglican bishops sit as of right, sets a bad example for democracy. Iran is the only other country in the world which gives unelected clerics automatic representation in its legislature. And the bishops’ presence increases the influence of the Church of England on our public affairs to a degree which is generally underestimated.

One example is the survival of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. In 2009, we debated it in the Lords. I have argued in the past, somewhat irreverently, that the title is a misnomer and often gives credence to Dean Swift’s dictum that “mankind is as suited for thinking as for flying”. 

But in the Lords’ debate a former director general of the BBC, Lord Birt, surprisingly told us that on his arrival at the BBC he discussed getting rid of it, as an “earnest sermonette placed bang-slap in the middle of the liveliest and most engaging political bazaar anywhere – the Today programme”.

However, a wise old stager advised him not to fight a battle he could not win – not against the embattled power of the churches! 

In the Lords, bishops receive special treatment. When they rise to speak or ask a question they are entitled to precedence. Every sitting is preceded by prayers, which in pre-Covid days were always well-attended, mainly because the House is grossly overcrowded and to be sure of a seat you have to get there before the post-prayer rush. 

On important moral issues they are often out of touch with public opinion

But while bishops in the Lords enhance the church’s influence, Britain is no longer a religious country. The latest British Social Attitudes survey found “the majority of the population doesn’t belong to any religion at all”, and not surprisingly, according to a YouGov poll, only 16 per cent believe bishops should keep their seats. 

In fact, on important moral issues they are often out of touch with public opinion. The public overwhelmingly believes assisted dying should be legalised for the terminally ill or incurably suffering, which bishops in the Lords unanimously oppose. 

Like the government, the bishops, as one would expect, support faith schools, while fewer than one in six members of the public agree that publicly-funded state schools should be able to select pupils on the grounds of religious belief – and for good reasons. We do not provide Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green schools and divide children into separate political categories.

So why provide religious schools which discourage social integration? 

In Northern Ireland, even now, after the Good Friday agreement, most children still grow up in separate schools which lead children of Catholics to view children of Protestants with prejudice, and vice versa. 

Faith schools also flout an essential educational principle. Teaching is not just about what to learn but how to learn. The charity Sense about Science rightly encourages all teachers, when discussing beliefs or controversial propositions, to tell children: “Ask for the evidence”; hardly an approach encouraged in faith schools!

The only reason why bishops are still in the Lords is that they have been there for centuries – not exactly a compelling justification for retaining an absurd constitutional anomaly.

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