Westminster debate hears case for and against unelected bishops in the Lords

By staff writers
February 3, 2010

Having unelected male religious leaders from one denomination in an unelected legislative chamber is unfair, inappropriate and contrary to the Christian message of equality and justice, an audience in parliament heard this week.

The Lords' Speaker, Baroness Hayman, has given permission for the first-ever debate in the Palace of Westminster on the future of bishops ('Lords Spiritual') in the House of Lords (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11062).

The event, which took place on 27 January 2010, was chaired by Times columnist and broadcaster, David Aaronovitch. Arguing for bishops not to have a privileged, reserved and unelected place was Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee along with Jonathan Bartley from Ekklesia.

During the discussion, the role of bishops in using their position in parliament to defend Church financial interests and to oppose anti-discrimination measures in the Equality Bill, were among the concerns highlighted.

Joining Bartley and Toynbee on the panel and defending the status quo, was the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Anglican Bishop of Leicester, who in November last year was appointed 'Convenor of the Lords Spiritual', and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, formerly one of the most senior judges in the country; well known for cases including the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the decision to grant lifelong anonymity to the killers of James Bulger.

Trevor Grundy of Ecumenical News International writes: Jonathan Bartley, the founder and co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, told fellow panellists and an audience of over 100 members of the public, "To have a group of men - they must be men and cannot be women - who represent one part of the country (for they cannot be Scottish, Welsh or Irish) parachuted into parliament, would be condemned by bishops if it happened in any other part of the world."

"But because it happens in this country, and because they (the bishops) are involved in it, they defend it in the name of Jesus, and I think that if Jesus was here today he would say, 'Come on, guys. This isn't right. You know that it's wrong.' It's about inequality, and it's not the message of the gospel."

Britain is the only Western democracy that has unelected clerics in its parliament.

Reform of the House of Lords is a major topic of discussion among parliamentarians, politicians, church leaders, secularists and humanists.

Debate on the future of the so-called 'Lords Spiritual' in the British Parliament's 742-member upper chamber continues, and is central to the question of whether the Church of England should, or should not, remain as the established church of England, whose supreme governor is the monarch and head of State, Queen Elizabeth II.

Bishop Stevens told Ecumenical News International that the House of Lords is a bastion against "the manipulation of Parliament". He added, "And the component within it which I am here to defend is that of a small group of the Lords Spiritual." He noted that the bishops' presence has contributed to the institution for 500 years.

"They bring to their contribution a network of connections into local communities which no other institution can begin to match, a regional perspective often lacking from the Upper House and a framework of values which, while claiming no moral superiority over other's values, contribute to the political debate about what constitutes the common good," said Stephens.

After the debate, the bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, said, "I recognise that many people disagree with the presence of bishops in the House of Lords but I think that our presence there is appropriate and justified, and we have got a job to do."

Those for the motion argued that having Anglican bishops in the House of Lords was unfair to members of other denominations and faiths, and those of no faith at all. They voiced the view that if there were to be religious leaders in Britain's legislature, then there should be Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Scientologists as well as Christians.

Christian leaders have been involved in the legislative affairs of Britain since before the formation of the Church of England during the time of King Henry VIII. Before the 11th century, Saxon kings consulted feudal landlords and religious leaders. In the 14th century, religious leaders and landed gentry formed the House of Lords as, respectively, the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal.

Apart from a brief interruption following the English Civil War in the 17th century (1641-1651), religious leaders have played an active role in the British Parliament ever since.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York and the bishops of Durham, London and Manchester are, by tradition, always members of the House of Lords. The remaining 21 places on the bishops' bench are not fixed but are occupied by those English diocesan bishops that have served the longest.

The organisers of the debate, the Labour Humanist Group in Parliament, said they were pleased with the quality of debate, and the number of people who had applied to attend.

"It shows the great public interest in this subject," organizer Alex Kennedy told ENI.


Read Jonathan Bartley's column, 'The mother of all democratic anomalies', here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11098 and his blog reflecting on the debate here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11165


The substance of this report is reproduced with kind acknowledgments to ENI: www.eni.ch

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.