A number of arguments have been put forward in the past to attempt to justify the position of the Lords Spiritual. None has ever been sound. Here we refute a selection of the most common.The Bishops bring a unique ethical and spiritual insight to the affairs of Parliament.
Arguments appealing to the special ‘spiritual’ qualifications of Anglican Bishops often rest on unsupported and unsubstantiated statements, for example, in Modernising Parliament: Reforming the House of Lords (Cabinet Office Jan 1999):
The Bishops often make a valuable contribution in the House because of their particular perspective and experience.
But Anglicanism has no monopoly on ‘ethical’ and ‘spiritual’ opinion. Many would argue, in fact, that they are less qualified to fill this role than, say, moral philosophers or ethicists. And even if Bishops were to be members of our Parliament, why can’t they come through the same routes as everyone else?
When did non-Anglicans ask for Church of England Bishops to speak on their behalf? Anglican Bishops have been granted no authority from the members of any other religious groups, let alone from non-religious groups, to speak on their behalf.
It can plausibly be argued that the Bishops don’t even speak for Anglicans. Leaders of religious groups, being the most conservative elements, are often unrepresentative of their congregations. Their privileged access to such a position of power further serves to reinforce their reactionary influence.
A recent Ipsos Mori poll revealed that those who identified as ‘Christian’ on the 2011 Census possessed very different views to those of their religious leaders. This was the case on a broad range of topics; from abortion, to same-sex relationships, to assisted suicide.
Absolutely, and there are Christians in Parliament. There are many elected MPs who are Christian, just as there are many MPs of other religions. They take their place in Parliament on the basis of the support of their electorate, not by virtue of their religion. There will no doubt be Christians in the reformed Lords. But why do we need automatic seats for Church of English Bishops on top of that?
This is a well-worn argument, and it is simply wrong. In Modernising Parliament: Reforming the House of Lords, produced by the Cabinet Office in January 1999, it was stated:
In more modern times, the presence of the Bishops became increasingly associated with the establishment of the Church of England, although in law the two are quite separate. The establishment of the Church of England rests upon Parliament’s powers over its legislation and the requirement for the Sovereign as its Supreme Governor to be in communion with it. The Bishops and Archbishops now sit by virtue of the Bishoprics Act of 1878, which provides for the two Archbishops, the Bishops of London, Winchester and Durham, and the next 21 most senior diocesan Bishops to have a seat in the House of Lords. (p.15)
Even if Bishops’ automatic right to a place in the Lords was removed, all other features of establishment would remain in place – the role of the state in ecclesiastical appointments, the relationship between the church and the head of state, the power of the ecclesiastical courts, the existence of an ecclesiastical committee in Parliament, the jurisdiction of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council over ecclesiastical appeals; all these and the many other features of establishment would continue untouched.
There are many problems with this ‘powering up’ approach. How is it that we could decide which belief groups are ‘representative’? If we were to rely on census statistics, the reliability of which have been called into repeated question, how many supporters should qualify a religion for a seat? How many ‘Jedi’ representatives would we have? How many Scientologists?
Even if we could select a ‘representative’ array of religious representatives, how would those groups select their representatives? Many of the Christian denominations and other religions active in the United Kingdom have relatively loose structures where individual congregations or gatherings possess a significant degree of independence.
Some religious organisations would have practical and theological concerns over suggestions that they should be intertwined with the civil authorities in this way. Canon Law, for example, forbids Roman Catholic clerics from assuming “public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power”. Similarly, the Church of Scotland has expressed concern regarding its religious independence should it become intimately associated with the state.
Ignoring all these practical issues, we have to ask whether an increase in religious influence is really what the public want. Asked in a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll to select groups they thought Government paid too much attention to, for example, more people chose ‘religious groups and leaders’ than chose any other domestic group.
Why should religion be prioritised over and above the other factors that define people in our country?
Absolutely not! There are religious people of all persuasions, including Anglicans, who support the removal of the Anglican Bishops from the Lords. The Christian think-tank Ekklesia, for example, is a strong advocate of a secular legislature.
Successive polls have shown that the privileged presence of the Church of England in the House of Lords is overwhelmingly unpopular. A January 2012 YouGov survey for The Sun found 60% of people opposed to the Bishops, with only 26% in favour. An Ekklesia poll found that 74% of people opposed the automatic right of Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords, with only 21% thinking it right. In January 2003, YouGov revealed that the public’s least favoured candidates for appointment to the House of Lords were religious representatives.
We’ve put together a document containing the key messages of the campaign – download it here.