Report on bishops in Lords fails to address justice and equality

By staff writers
12 Feb 2007

A report launched yesterday by the thinktank 'Theos', which argues for the retention of Bishops in a reformed House of Lords, has been criticised by humanists and Christians as failing to address issues of ethics, justice and equality.

The research suggests that bishops are becoming an increasingly significant force in the House of Lords.

Entitled; "Coming off the bench, The past, present and future of religious representation in the House of Lords", the report analyses the contribution of bishops in the second chamber during the Thatcher and Blair premierships and concludes that the 26 Anglican prelates are attending, voting and speaking more than they did during the 1980s.

The report has been produced to coincide with the publication of the government’s white paper on House of Lords reform.

But Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) Hanne Stinson commented, "However it is presented, the unacceptable fact is that the UK is the only Western democracy to give religious representatives the automatic right to sit in the legislature. Modern Britain is a society with a great diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs and continuing to privilege one denomination in this way is preposterous.

The BHA believes the arguments against privileging religious representatives in a democratic parliament to be 'irrefutable' and that the arguments in their favour are insubstantial. It added that the claim that Bishops were uniquely qualified to provide ethical and spiritual insights was "factually incorrect and offensive".

Defending the report, Paul Woolley, Director of Theos, said: "We hope that this new report will re-open the debate about the role of faith in our institutions, as well as in the public sphere as a whole."

"No convincing reason has been offered to leave religious thinking out of the public conversation. Everyone has an underlying narrative to their lives and a set of values that shape what they think, do and say. Religious people just tend to more honest about it.

"The report encourages those serving as religious representatives in a reformed second chamber to consider how they can bring a distinct moral and spiritual contribution to political debate. The bishops have become advocates for the religious communities at large, and a symbolic reminder of the spiritual and moral needs of people in general. In a reformed House of Lords with a broader religious element, representatives from other traditions will have the opportunity to adopt a similar approach."

However, Jonathan Bartley of the religious thinktank Ekklesia, who recently published a book urging the end of the presence of bishops in the Second Chamber said; "The idea that the removal of bishops from the House of Lords would in some way prevent Christians from participating in public life is absurd. Christians can and do successfully stand for election to the House of Commons, and indeed Ekklesia's own analysis three years ago, pointed out that Christians are over-represented in the House of Commons when compared to the church-going population of the country at large.

"There are many Christians too in the House of Lords, including retired leaders of other Christian denominations. However they have not had to rely on patronage and privilege to get there.

"Whilst clearly a lot of work has gone into the Theos report, it is a glaring omission that in the 58 page document from a Christian group neither the word 'justice' nor the word 'equality' are used even once. There is no discussion of the ethics and values of democratic systems whatsoever, and if this is the kind of 'unique moral and spiritual message' that bishops are bringing, it is one we could all do without."

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