Faith has an important role... but not like this

By George Gabriel
March 11, 2010

There are 26 Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords as of right. They have been there since the time of Henry VIII - a constitutional set-up that leaves us in the inglorious company of Iran... and very few others.

This is despite the fact that most major polls since the 1970s find the public in favour of democratising the upper chamber, a preference now expressed as a clear and unequivocal demand with a fully elected second chamber as a third of 100,000 votes in Power2010's process to find the people's priorities for reform.

Faith does have an important role in public life. Not as some "lone voice for values" in a parliament of realpolitik, but as one of many voices on the fundamental questions of how we should live together.

One need only look at the great work of thousands of churches in supporting those seeking sanctuary and rendered destitute, or in campaigning to end the detention of children, to see an important contribution.

Yet governing by right is diametrically opposed to this view of the role and mission of the church, and reveals the 'Lords Spiritual' as victims of the same base and immoral impulses of other powerful organisations - to serve their immediate interests ( and entrench their control.

As Jonathan Bartley from Ekklesia puts it: "Do as I say, not as I do" is a far cry from "do unto others as you would have others do unto you"!

Perhaps the Bishops do feel shame at such a course of action. They choose to have their say on only three to five per cent of votes moving through the House of Lords - a figure well below the average for other Lords [which stands] at about 25 per cent.

Likewise, even on matters deemed of Church interest, even where the Bishops' vote has been decisive - as it was to extend exemptions on the equalities bill so they can continue discriminatory employment practices - they almost never vote in blocks greater than eight.

Though this 'self-restraint' (if that is what it is) is to be welcomed, given each vote they cast is in itself undemocratic, what does it say? That they recognise the untenability of their positions politically and perhaps ethically? If so then all that is lacking is the courage to leave for good - or stand for election.

The Bishops in the Lords are a symbol of just how antiquated and out-dated our constitution is with its deference to the vested interests of privileged groups dressed up as 'tradition' and charming eccentricity.

But what worked for Henry VIII, just will not wash in 21st century Britain: it's time to call them out.

Today, Power2010 and a number of its allies have launched a "Speak Out" action ( - the first ever directed at the bishops, calling on them to engage positively with democratic renewal and agree to a set of principles for reform of the second chamber that both Christian and non-Christian democrats can support.

Add your voice to the 10,000 messages already sent to the bishops in the first two hours of action - with enough of us making noise, we may just get the Bishops to back the Power Pledge and the call for a reformed second chamber.

Send a courteous, positive and strong message to the Bishops in the Lords here:


(c) George Gabriel is Power 2010's Partnership Coordinator.

Ekklesia is pleased to be a partner in Power 2010.

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