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Lord Taverne: Separation of church and state is far from complete in the House of Lords

3 min read

Ahead of the introduction of his Private Members' Bill, which aims to abolish the 26 Anglican bishops who sit in the House of Lords, Lord Taverne QC writes that their presence gives the Church of England special access to power. 

One of the most notable achievements of the Enlightenment was the separation of Church and State. Where this succeeded in removing religion from a dominant constitutional role, it generally promoted democracy, tolerance and freedom – except of course where the state itself became the new religion.

When religion and politics continue to be inextricably mixed, the results are generally disastrous and make the world a much more dangerous place. Conflict between Sunni and Shia, for example, has torn the Middle East apart. Wherever theocracies rule, democracy and liberty are suppressed.  What is particularly worrying at the present time is that changes in Turkey, and more recently in Malaysia and Indonesia, show a new international trend of regression from secular democracy to theocratic autocracy.

Of course religion no longer plays a dominant part in the United Kingdom. But separation of Church and State is far from complete and the House of Lords, where 26 Anglican bishops sit as of right, sets a bad example for democracy. The only other example of any country in the world which gives unelected clerics automatic representation in its legislature is Iran, hardly a fellow example to boast about.

Perhaps one of the most serious effects of the continuing mix of religion with our politics is on our education. The presence of bishops in the Lords gives the Church of England special access to those in power. This bolsters the government’s strong support for faith schools, which are increasing in number and in diversity, while more people than ever describe themselves as non-religious.

Yet the sad experience of Northern Ireland demonstrates that religious schools divide rather than unite. By contrast, the dramatic decline of the political influence of the church in the Republic of Ireland has made it a more peaceful and tolerant country.

Schools should teach children to think for themselves. Why then encourage schools which select them on the basis that they are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jewish children? It would be equally absurd to treat them as Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem children.

Those who oppose policies like this should have as fair a chance to make their case as those who support them. Granting bishops the automatic right to sit in the Lords undermines this reasonable democratic principle. It is an anachronism which should be addressed.

We should complete the separation of Church and State and ensure no one is privileged or disadvantaged because of their beliefs. The House of Lords also desperately needs reform to make it more democratic and credible - and smaller.

That is why I will introduce a Private Member’s bill today, drafted with the assistance of the National Secular Society, as a small but useful step towards these aims.

I should add that if my bill is passed, it should be a popular reform. Polls show that 62 per cent of the public think that no religious cleric should have the automatic right to sit in Parliament and only 8 per cent would let them retain their seats.

I hope my fellow parliamentarians will listen to their views, take a stand for equality and democracy, and remove the bishops’ automatic right to sit in the legislature.

Lord Taverne is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. 

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