Questions about bishops

By Jonathan Bartley
March 16, 2010

Over 50,000 emails were sent in 72 hours to bishops (as part of the Power2010 initiative of which Ekklesia is a part), urging the Lords Spiritual to play a full part in leading democratic reform of the Second Chamber. It has captured quite a bit of attention, and we have been asked a few questions about why we are involved.

Here are a few quick responses to some of the questions and comments:

1. “Why are you encouraging people to write to bishops?”
Much of the campaigning with regard to MPs expenses and the reform of the Second Chamber has focused on the negative. We believe that a positive, constructive approach needs to be taken, and that religious people should be at the forefront of putting positive alternatives and leading by example. The emails are messages of encouragement urging the bishops, as Parliamentarians and church leaders, to make a positive contribution and take a lead in the debate on reform. It is interesting that they have been interpreted by some as being 'down' on bishops. If you actually read the messages that are being sent, you will find that they contain a positive message.

2. “Weren’t the bishops engaged in encouraging reform already?” Bishops have certainly spoken warmly about Power2010 in the past, including during Parliamentary debates. However it is clear from what they have said, that some weren’t expecting at the end of the public consultation and vote, for the removal of reserved places for bishops to be a public priority. This puts them in an awkward position. The letter writing campaign is to encourage them not to back away from their commitment to reform, but recognise that change is coming, and they need to be a part of shaping it, even if this means a change for them too.

3. “Aren’t you just trying to embarrass bishops?” No. We have a longstanding interest in constitutional reform. Last year for example we commissioned a poll to ascertain the views of the public, following the MP's expenses scandal, on attitudes towards independent MPs. We have long worked for a fairer and more representative democractic system, as well believing that this is what our faith calls us to do. That is why we are part of Power2010 along with other groups like the Salvation Army and Faithworks. As part of that, we are trying to encourage bishops to face up to the reality of what is going on, and play a positive role in shaping the future of the House of Lords. But if bishops are embarrassed by this, it does beg the question ‘why?’. What is it that they are embarrassed about?

4. “Are bishops just receiving thousands of emails which say the same thing?”
There is a template on the Power2010 website which gives people a basic email which they can send. However the system has been set up so people can amend it before they send it, and they are being encouraged to change the emails to put in their own thoughts and emphases. People have reported to us that they are doing this.

5. "Why target the bishops?” The Church of England claims that bishops in the House of Lords “are a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians”. If Christians are going to call for a more open and representative democracy, bishops should be a part of it. It is true however, as a survey by ICM showed yesterday (Monday) 70 per cent of people self-identifying as Christians believe it is ‘wrong’ for bishops to be in Parliament under the current system. We believe it is right however, that people should be able to write to those who claim to represent them, and let them know what they think, even if they disagree with them.

6. “This is not a good way of getting parliamentarians on your side?” Bishops themselves have previously encouraged letter writing campaigns to other parliamentarians, in order to get their support. We acknowledge the limitations of such an approach, but it would be strange for the bishops to object to something that they have encouraged other people to do to other parliamentarians. Such campaigns are an important part of the democratic system. The messages, as has been said, are also positive and supportive.

7. “Bishops can’t cope with the volume of correspondence” It is true that Power2010 were only expecting people to send about 10,000 letters in total over the course of the whole initiative. 50,000 were sent in the first 72 hours, which perhaps shows the strength of opinion there is on the subject. This in itself is a helpful indicator as bishops had previously suggested that this isn't really a major issue for people. But the crucial question is whether bishops want more democratic participation or not. If bishops can’t cope with what most other parliamentarians would consider a pretty standard method of democratic engagement, perhaps they need to consider whether they should be in Parliament at all, or whether they should organise their offices to be able to cope with Parliamentary duties. They have allowances available to do this. But the answer is surely not to tell people to stop contacting those who claim to represent them?

8. “Bishops don’t have the resources to respond to all these letters” Bishops receive an attendance allowance for their work in the House of Lords. Most bishops only attend for on average, 25 days a year. The Bishop of Truro did however receive £1,100 for each of the five days he attended in 2007-2008. There is money there for those parliamentarians who play a full an active part in the democractic process.

9. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a ‘quiet word’ with the bishops?” People have been having quiet words with the bishops for years, and have done so over democratic reform in this instance. It is not a case of “either...or” but “both...and”.

10. “You’ve just got a chip on your shoulder about bishops?” There is a tendency to see things in black and white terms, and suggest that either one must support bishops and their position in the House of Lords, or be entirely against them. Ekklesia has been reporting for the best part of a decade what the bishops have been doing, often in very favourable terms, whilst urging greater accountability and an end to special privilege. The issue is not with the office of bishop, or whether they are nice people, but the way bishops engage politically. It should be noted that those who suggest such things are bishops themselves. Some might one day have places in the House of Lords. This kind of defence tends to be at the expense of engaging in the debate itself, but given that they might one day be in the House of Lords themselves, it is important that they engage with the substantive issues.

11. “Wouldn’t the removal of special places of bishops mean an end the involvement of Christianity in public life?” The recent ICM poll suggested that the population of the UK is evenly split over the place of religion in public life, but heavily opposed to special places in Parliament reserved for bishops. This is not a question of whether they should be involved in public life, but how. Indeed, the campaign is encouraging bishops to get involved more, not less.

12. “The ICM poll sample is only 1,000 people, surely that isn’t enough to be meaningful or representative?” ICM is a worldwide polling company which has to abide by industry standards in all its polling, and has a reputation to maintain. It is a member of the British council. The sample size is industry standard, and the methodology and weighting of the sample is listed clearly at the end of the results.

13. "The only alternative is an all-elected chamber?" This is the option we favour, but it also begs a whole series of questions such as what voting system would be employed, and whether minorities and independents would have fair representation. If the bishops do not engage with these issues, they will not have a say in shaping an all-elected second chamber.

But this is not the only alternative. Other options would include for example, a mixture of elected peers and appointed peers. The question then would be whether bishops would be appointed in the same way as others (through 'merit' and some sort of standard appointments procedure common to all) or whether they would try to keep their own special places, giving them an even bigger proportion of the appointed places than they have already (which is what they have said they want).

14. "Bishops are not politicians?"
Yes they are, at least according to the Church of England, they claim to represent people in Parliament.

15. Have you seen Dave Walker's cartoon?
Yes, it's fab.

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