Lords' Speaker permits first-ever public debate on future of bishops in House of Lords

David Aaronovitch with Bishop of Leicester, Jonathan Bartley, Polly Toynbee and Baroness Butler-Sloss at Parliament

London, UK - JAN 20, 2010 The Lords' Speaker, Baroness Hayman, has given permission for the first-ever debate in the Palace of Westminster on the future of the bishops in the House of Lords.

The unprecedented debate involving Ekklesia co- director Jonathan Bartley, will be attended by Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, who in November last year was appointed 'Convenor of the Lords Spiritual'. Joining him to defend the status quo will be Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, formerly one of the most senior judges in the country; well known for cases like the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the decision to grant lifelong anonymity to the killers of Jamie Bulger.

The event, organised by Labour Humanists, takes place on Wednesday 27 January. It will be held at Parliament and chaired by Times columnist and broadcaster David Aaronovitch. Arguing for the bishops to be removed will be Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.

Tickets for the debate are free and available to the public via the event website, www.evict-the-bishops.com

Many have been dissatisfied at the lack of progress on reform of the House of Lords. In 2007 the Commons voted for a fully elected second chamber, and last year the Government addressed what critics called one of the constitution's long-standing oddities, by removing the Law Lords from the legislature and founding a Supreme Court. Many argue that the next logical step would be to remove the bishops too. However, under Government proposals, they would remain if a proportion of a reformed Second Chamber were appointed.

The debate is being held shortly after it was revealed that Church of England bishops claimed just over £135,000 from the public purse for attending the House of Lords in the past financial year.

Jonathan Bartley, Co-director of Ekklesia, said: "There isn't just a strong secular case for removing bishops from the Lords but a compelling religious one.

"At a time when many are calling for widespread political reform to make Parliament more accountable, the Church's defence of 26 unelected men in the Second Chamber entirely undermines the religious contribution to the debate. When the Church speaks on other issues of justice too, their presence highlights a huge double standard which makes the church appear at best ridiculous, and at worst hypocritical.

"The fact that the Bishops come from one gender, representing just one section of Britain (England), and from one denomination within just one faith also raises important questions of equality. Although it is clear that some from other religions, denominations, genders and parts of the UK feel that the bishops do represent them, this is clearly not the case for the vast majority. But the presence of many other religious people in both Houses of Parliament, demonstrates simply and clearly that the religious need not rely on historical privilege for its many voices to be heard.

"But perhaps the biggest argument against the presence of Christian Bishops in the Lords is a very simple Christian question: "What would Jesus think?" Some very nifty, but also suspect theological footwork is required to square unjust privilege with the teachings of Jesus Christ."


Notes to Editors
1. The event takes place in Committee Room 10, Houses of Parliament, on Wednesday 27 January, at 7:30pm.

2. Formed in 2001, Ekklesia was listed by The Independent newspaper in 2005 as among 20 influential UK thinktanks. According to Alexa/Amazon, it has one of the most-visited religious current affairs websites in Britain. It runs a news and comment service, examining religion in public life, and raises £250,000 a year for peace & justice causes

3. The Rt Revd Tim Stevens is Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lord Spiritual. After working in business and the civil service, Bishop Stevens was ordained in 1976 and has since ministered in East London, Essex and Suffolk. In 1995 he was appointed Suffragan Bishop of Dunwich before being appointed Bishop of Leicester in 1999. In that role he has taken a particular interest in interfaith relations, a commitment that he has been able to combine with his interest in city regeneration through working with other faiths to promote urban development. He is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Children's Society, a major national charity with ties to the Church of England, and chairs the council of Council of Westcott House theological college in Cambridge.

4. The Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss: After being called to the Bar in 1955, Elizabeth Butler- Sloss rose to become one of Britain's most senior judges before retiring. During her career she served as a High Court judge, a Lord Justice of Appeal and, between 1999 and 2005, as the President of the Family Division of the High Court. From 2006-7 she was Deputy Coroner of the Queen's Household and Assistant Deputy Coroner for Surrey and for Inner West London. She has presided over many important cases including the Cleveland child abuse inquiry in the late 1980s and the decision that James Bulger's killers should be granted lifelong anonymity. In 2006 she was gazetted as Baroness Butler-Sloss, of Marsh Green in the County of Devon and sits in the House of Lords as a Crossbencher. A church-going Anglican, in 2002 she chaired the Crown Appointments charged with the selection of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. She is also formerly Chairman of the Advisory Council of St Paul's Cathedral.

5. Jonathan Bartley: Jonathan is a Co-Director of Ekklesia. Ekklesia's approach to issues of religion in the public sphere is primarily shaped by a strong theological and political critique of 'Christendom' - the historic collusion of institutional churches with governing authority and vice versa. Jonathan is also a regular writer and commentator on religious and social issues. He has lectured and tutored in Theology and Politics at Sarum College in Salisbury. Jonathan also worked in Parliament for a number of years, including with the then Prime Minister John Major. Between 1997 and 2001 he ran the cross-party Movement for Christian Democracy. He has served on the Church of England Evangelical Council, and is the author of a number of books on religion and public life.

6. Polly Toynbee: Polly has worked as a journalist including posts at Observer, the Independent and as BBC Social Affairs Editor from 1988-1995. Since 1998 she has been one of the Guardian's leading columnists and one of Britain's most widely recognised commentators. Since 2007 she has been the President of the British Humanist Association and often writes and speaks on the issues that concern humanists: religious fundamentalism, faith schools, equality and secularism. She has written a number of social commentary books and is a strong advocate of constitutional reform. She is also President of the Social Policy Association and in 2007 was named "Columnist of the Year" at the British Press Awards.

7. David Aaronovitch: David Aaronovitch is a writer, broadcaster and commentator on international politics and the media. He writes for The Times Comment page on Tuesdays. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent, winning numerous accolades, including Columnist of the Year 2003 and the 2001 Orwell prize for journalism. He has appeared on the satirical TV current affairs programme Have I Got News For You and made a number of radio and TV programmes on historical topics and current affairs.