The mother of all democratic anomalies

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
25 Jan 2010

Arrangements which allow an undemocratic, external institution to parachute into Parliament their own appointees who can only be from one section of the country, of one gender, and from one particular strand of one religion – are the kind of thing we might condemn as profoundly unjust and corrupt in other parts of the world. They are defended in the UK in the name of Christianity.

The country described as the Mother of all Parliaments contains the mother of all democratic anomalies.

The 26 Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords are in reality (mostly) decent people. As Unite’s Clergy union alleged recently, there may be one or two prone to a bit of bullying of their underlings. But so are some MPs. Bishops only claim £125,000 a year in expenses (in addition to their salaries and palaces provided by the Church of England) and, some might say it is only the second chamber of Parliament, not the really important bit. So what’s the problem?

The issue is with the system. It is not that we should not have bishops in the House of Lords. It would be discriminatory to prevent them entering simply because of their position in the church. But should they not be subject to appointment on the basis of merit just like everyone else? In particular, should the church not be subject to the same levels of accountability?

As we see all too clearly with the Equality Bill currently before Parliament, bishops are not reluctant to defend the perceived interests of their institution. They are currently tabling and supporting amendments to try and ensure that religious groups and churches can refuse to employ people because of their sexuality. The Church of England website makes the claim that they “are a voice for all people of faith”. Gay Christians, amongst others, would beg to differ.

And let us also be under no illusions that their interests are not financial. They have lobbied to have water charges for churches cut and for more money for their schools. They are currently even seeking financial compensation to cope with technological changes which will affect the radio microphones of churches up and down the country. The Church Commissioners, who manage the £5 billion investments in commercial property and shares, also include a number of bishops in the Lords. The Church Commissioners are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act - another opt-out that the Church has gained. But many of the Parliamentary votes in which bishops are involved will have long lasting effects on their investments. At a time of financial crisis for the Church, is it enough simply to believe that these men from the Church of England, unlike any other institution in history, can entirely resist all influence of mammon in all their decision-making, all of the time? Or do we need some checks and balances, in the same way that bishops themselves call for the financial accountability of others - most notably the City?

Christians and other faith groups are already over-represented in Parliament, so the removal of bishops would not mean the loss of the voice of faith. It would simply mean that it was less weighted to one denomination. MPs who are members of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement, and the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, make up somewhere in the region of 20 per cent of the House of Commons. Former bishops and archbishops, well known Christians such as Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, chief rabbis, Muslim leaders, as well as former leaders of denominations such as the Methodist Church, have all arrived in the House of Lords through the ‘usual channels’ rather than on the basis of privilege.

But perhaps the most compelling argument against the presence of bishops by right, rather than merit, is the way in which their presence undermines Christian witness, and in particular the church’s stand against injustice. How can the church make a serious contribution to debates on constitutional reform and fair representation - particularly in the wake of scandals over MP’s expenses - when its own entry into parliament is so fundamentally undemocratic? How too, can bishops challenge injustice and call for equality on a whole range of issues, when their whole basis for being in Parliament is unfair privilege? “Do as I say, not as I do”, is not a position that the Church can maintain with any credibility.

If we are going to have bishops in Parliament, let them apply to the existing Appointment’s Commission, where their contribution, qualifications and worth can be accountably assessed. And if in future we have an elected second chamber, there is nothing preventing them from standing for election just like everyone else. But let us not seek to defend an institutional arrangement which does more to undermine the mission and authority of the Church than to aid it.

[Jonathan Bartley will be debating the place of bishops in the House of Lords, in Parliament this Wednesday 27th Jan, with the Bishop of Leicester, Polly Toynbee and Baroness Butler-Sloss. David Aaronovitch will be chairing. More info: www.evict-the-bishops.com ]

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