I have been reflecting on a debate I took part in last week at the House of Commons, on whether it is time to get rid of bishops from the House of Lords. The timing could not have been more appropriate with amendments passed just a couple of days before to the Equality Bill, carried by the votes of eight bishops, and the Commons vote to remove the remaining hereditary peers.
Chaired by David Aaronovitch and organised by Labour humanists, I found myself alongside Polly Toynbee debating in front of a packed Committee room with the Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens and Baroness Butler-Sloss.
In advance of the debate, I was accused by one bishop of having a ‘chip on my shoulder’. A rather bizarre accusation to come out with I thought, but something which suggests to me that the argument for maintaining 26 bishops in Parliament has been well and truly lost. Attempts to try and defend the indefensible usually end up with attribution of dubious motives to those who disagree with you. A sign that there are no credible arguments left.
But, just so there is no doubt on the matter, I thought I should make it clear at the debate that 'some of my best friends were bishops'.
I live in an intentional Christian community with the daughter of the just retired Bishop of Thetford, who is a lovely and learned man who I respect greatly. I also live opposite the Bishop of Southwark, who I defended publicly on national radio when he got into hot water after an allegedly boozy reception at the Irish embassy. (I didn’t hear any bishops coming to his defence incidentally). I know him to be a man of integrity, who was a great source of comfort and support during our battle to get my disabled son into our local church school. My wife and I are also good friends with his son, and his grandchildren play with my children (as well as attending the same Anglican church).
There is another reason though why it was important to say this. During last week's debate in Parliament, it became all too apparent that the supporters of the 26 bishops in the House of Lords only really have one main point left that they can make - that bishops are jolly nice people, and so there is no reason why they shouldn't be in the House of Lords.
Other arguments are of course sometimes advanced - that bishops have contact with local communities, that they are learned men, that they have a 'moral compass'. The problem is that (assuming that all this is true) none of this is unique to the 26. Many learned people from many communities and areas of life sit in the Second Chamber. But they have been appointed through the usual channels - and this includes people of faith like the former chief Rabbi, the former leader of the Methodist Conference, Baroness Cox from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Catholc Peer Lord Alton, and yes, even some retired bishops. So what makes the 26 additional bishops so unique? The answer of course is, nothing, except that they get there because the Church of England thinks they will make good bishops.
But it should be conceded that, despite accusations of bullying (and indeed many MPs have faced similar accusations) bishops are in the main nice people. Indeed, bishops are so nice, that if they encountered arrangements in other parts of the world which allowed an undemocratic, external institution to parachute into a Parliament their own appointees, who can only be from one section of the country, of one gender, and from one particular strand of one religion – they would surely condemn it as profoundly unjust and corrupt.
It's just a shame that here in the UK, they defend such arrangements in the name of Christianity.