Poll says most Christians want bishops to reform, not 'lord it' in the House

By staff writers
March 15, 2010

Two-thirds of the public believe that anyone who sits in the House of Lords and votes on laws should be elected, and 70 per cent of Christians believe that it is wrong that some Church of England Bishops are given an automatic seat in parliament.

The findings come in a new ICM poll commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, as part of the Power2010 political reform initiative, of which the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia is a member - alongside other civic organisations and individuals, both religious and secular.

The findings, which show an overwhelming public desire for a fully reformed Second Chamber, come as plans for sweeping away the old House of Lords and replacing it with an elected body are being prepared by government ministers, according to a leaked document.

The ICM poll shows the population of the UK to be equally split over the importance of institutional religion in public life. But three-quarters clearly state that it is wrong for bishops to have reserved places in the House of Lords – suggesting they want the religious voice to be heard on merit rather than by imposition.

The poll findings and the government’s political shift come as members of the public have been sending over 52,000 emails to the “Lords Spiritual” (the 24 bishops and two archbishops who sit in the Lords as of right) in an unprecedented action (http://www.power2010.org.uk/faith) calling on them to back the broad Power2010 coalition’s call for an elected second chamber.

The ICM poll of more than 1,000 adults also found that:

* Forty three per cent of people believe it is important that institutional religion plays a role in public life, whilst 41 per cent feel it is not important.

* Many more Muslims (84 per cent) than Christians (50 per cent) believe that it is important that 'organised religion should play a role in public life'.

* Seventy-four per cent of the population - including 70 per cent of Christians - believe it is wrong that some Church of England Bishops are given an automatic seat in the House of Lords.

* Sixty-five say it is important that anyone who sits in the House of Commons or House of Lords and votes on laws is elected.

* Support for the place of Church of England bishops in the Lords is lowest in Scotland, where only 20 per cent of the population believe their presence is significant.

Currently 26 ‘Lords Spiritual’ sit in the Upper Chamber and vote on laws – a role which dates back to the time of Henry VIII – alongside hereditary and appointed peers. None of them have been elected.

Pam Giddy, director of Power2010, said: “The House of Lords is a symbol of just how antiquated and out-of-date our constitution is. Perhaps its design made sense in the distant past. But as this poll clearly shows, the public want a fully elected second chamber – one without appointed cronies, aristocrats who have inherited the right to rule, or Bishops who are automatically given their seats.”

She added: “It is concerning that Labour appears to want to keep religious representatives in a reformed second chamber. It’s not acceptable that we should remain one of the few countries in the world, alongside Iran, that grants seats in the legislature to religious representatives by right. That’s why we’re encouraging people to email the Bishops, and ask them to support our call for a second chamber in which every member is elected and accountable.”

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia said: "The judgement on those who claim to speak for ethics and values is clear: their position as unelected appointees in parliament is morally untenable.

"As far as both the wider population and those who self-identify as Christians are concerned, the time is up on reserved places for bishops in the House of Lords. But at the same time it is clear that many still feel religion has an important role to play in public life. The crucial question is, in what way? The answer would seem to be by being heard on earned merit rather than through historical preference."

Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow added: "Church of England bishops in the Lords have now been given a clear choice: gain respect by backing democratic change, or lose credibility by clinging to indefensible privilege. If they do not take it, they will only marginalise themselves."

He continued: "Lords reform is an opportunity, not a threat. To influence public life for good, bishops should offer a positive example, rather than demanding special advantage - recalling that the founder of Christianity told his followers not to 'lord it' over others."

"Christ rejected the idea of claiming places at 'the top table' or 'lording it' over others. So the choice that now faces the Lords Spiritual is a basic Christian one; it does not simply mean being swayed by public opinion," said Barrow.

The full poll results can be studied here (Adobe Acrobat *.PDF): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/survey_on_bishops_icm.pdf

Power2010's letter-writing initiative can be found here: http://www.power2010.org.uk/faith

ICM Research is a nationally and internationally recognised market research company offering polling, focus groups and telephone surveys in various specialist areas. http://www.icmresearch.co.uk/

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.