Bishops may have sealed their fate with Equality Bill vote

By Jonathan Bartley
January 26, 2010

When I worked in the House of Commons there was a joke that used to be told during the obligatory tours for family and friends around the Palace of Westminster.

The guide would stand in Central Lobby and point to the four patron saints above the four arches that led away from it.

Over the way to the Lords stands St George, as, the guide would say, every Englishman wants to be a Lord. Over the way to the Commons was St David for the Welsh, which was just as appropriate. St Patrick stood over the exit, as the Irish were always the most keen to leave the Union. St Andrew for Scotland stood over the way to the bar.

Tonight, the bishops have positioned themselves firmly alongside St Patrick.

There are very few votes in the House of Lords where the bishops make the difference between winning and losing. However, in the Government defeat tonight (Monday) on Amendment 100 to the Equality Bill (moved by Baroness O'Cathain) the bishops made the difference between victory and defeat.

After a concerted campaign by bishops and some other Christian groups, the amendment was carried by just 5 votes - 177 to 172. Eight bishops voted for the amendment. Several of their number were also instrumental in bringing it forward in the first place.

This will quite rightly increase pressure, and the strength of the case, for bishops to be removed from the Second Chamber.

The Church of England website makes the claim that the bishops in the Lords “are a voice for all people of faith”. Well I am a person of faith and they don’t speak for me. They weren't speaking for gay people of faith tonight either, who will now legally not be considered for many church jobs or employment with many Christian organisations. Nor were they speaking for the Quakers, who recently backed civil partnerships, the Unitarians or some Jews, who all wanted the Equality Bill amended to permit religious symbols to be used in civil partnership ceremonies. They weren't speaking for the religious groups involved in the Cutting Edge Consortium set up around the Equality Bill. In fact, one might fairly suggest that whilst they are prominent members of the Church of England, they weren't speaking for any Christian who believes that the message of the Jesus means a warm welcome for all to join in and be included in the community of God.

So just who do bishops represent? Bishops must be male, from one part of the UK (not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) – a strange thing that even predates Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian Question. They must be from just one denomination, within just one faith.

On many issues they are divided and can not invariably be found voting as both 'content' and 'not content' on the same issues. It is often only when it comes to the interests of the institutional church that they suddenly seem to join together with one voice.

Many politicians of course will represent specific sectional interests. But the bishops are in many respects the least qualified to do so - at least when compared to their colleagues in the second chamber. They are after all, parachuted in by an external institution, with next to no political accountability.

Bishops are unlike other life peers in two important respects. Firstly, they are not appointed on merit. The Church of England may have decided that they would make good bishops. But that is certainly not the criteria the Appointments Commission will apply to decide whether someone is suited for the Lords.

Secondly, when life peers die, others are not automatically appointed to the place that they have vacated. There is no reserved space to fill as such as there is with the places for the 26 Bishops. Bishops are in fact far more like the hereditaries in this respect. When one moves on, another must come in their place.

But at least with hereditaries, there is a small element of democracy. There was an election amongst peers to determine the remaining 92. When one dies, the next in line takes their place. There has never been a Parliamentary vote whatsoever to appoint bishops.

Until now it has often been conceded that such unaccountability is pretty innocuous and inconsequential. That argument will no longer hold water. And with reform of the Lords on the agenda, the will now be feeling the chill wind of Parliament Square whistling towards them, as the door begins to open.

Under current proposals, they would go if a reformed Lords is entirely elected. Should 20% remain appointed, they will certainly be scaled down, but that number is yet to be determined. Their voting on the Equality Bill has done their case no favours. There will it seems, be still more religious people who will lose their jobs in the future as a result of tonight's vote.

[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: ]

The eight bishops who voted were:

Bishop of Chichester
Bishop of Durham
Bishop of Exeter
Bishop of Hereford
Bishop of Liverpool
Bishop of London
Bishop of Winchester
Archbishop of York

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.