House of Lords reform raises question about Church of England bishops

By staff writers
February 1, 2007

The automatic presence of 26 Church of England bishops in the unelected second chamber of parliament has been raised again, in light of the UK government’s deliberations about House of Lords reform.

Responding to cabinet discussions, Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said that in the interests of fairness members should be there on an agreed basis of merit, irrespective of religion. BHA is calling for any new Cabinet proposals to include the removal of the bishops who sit in the Lords as of ‘right’.

When substantial Lords reform was last mooted, ecumenical and inter-faith bodies were consulted about the possibility of spreading or sharing places currently allocated to the C of E. But Congregationalists, Quakers and others objected to ‘religious representation’ on principle – and the Church of England resisted reducing its bishops or including lay members, even from Anglicans in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Ms Stinson said today: “The UK is the only Western democracy to give religious representatives the automatic right to sit in our legislature and this anachronism should be top of the list for reformers. Modern Britain is a society with a staggering diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs.”

The House of Lords has 784 members (known as 'peers') at the moment. They consist of Lords Spiritual (senior Church of England bishops) and Lords Temporal (lay peers). Law Lords (senior judges) also sit as Lords Temporal. Members of the chamber are unelected and were originally drawn from the nobility and allies of the monarchy in Britain.

Church of England bishops have seats in the Lords because of its Establishment under the Crown – something traditionally opposed by Free Church (‘non-conformist’) Christians and others who object to the arrangement on both civil and theological grounds.

Ms Stinson said: “Continuing to privilege one denomination in this way is preposterous and it would be just as unacceptable to extend the privilege to all religions. If the proposed reform includes appointments to the Lords these should all be on personal merit - there could be no objection to the occasional bishop or other religious leader being appointed on that basis.’

Reflecting on the likelihood that the government would propose such change, the BHA and other opponents of Establishment are doubtful, however.

Ms Stinson commented: “The fact that the government faced up to religious pressure recently over gay adoption has given some people reason to hope that they will not be as intimidated by [such] lobbying in the future, but the u-turn on faith school admissions last year and the recent [concessions] over issues such as religion or belief discrimination are not reassuring.”

Following the House of Lords Act 1999 there are only 92 peers who sit by virtue of hereditary peerage. The majority of members are now life peers and the government has been consulting on proposals and attempting to legislate for further reform of the Lords.

Civic and equalities campaigners wish to see a substantial extension of democratic principles into the process. New Labour has opposed a fully-elected second chamber.

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