I’ve just come back from a series of local BBC radio interviews on the place of Bishops in House of Lords reform. This is following the disappointing news that the parliamentary Joint Committee on Lords Reform is to recommend Bishops remain in a reformed chamber. I gave oral evidence to the committee last year but obviously they liked Rowan Williams’ evidence more 🙁
I can’t think of a single good argument for automatic places for bishops remaining in a reformed chamber. We don’t know what the committee (one of the members of which is himself a bishop) will give as the rationale for its poor decision but it’s bound to be one or more of the following fatuities (all of them were made by the Bishop of Hereford at some point this morning):
‘Bishops have been in our parliament for centuries’
At a time of reform especially – but at any time really – this is a particularly bad argument. When we are rethinking our situation in the light of the contemporary context, the fact that bishops have been in parliament for centuries is no argument at all. Although they still get quite nice houses, they are not the feudal landowners of bygone days and the old justifications are redundant.
‘This is a Christian country’
No it isn’t – most people aren’t Christians in any religious sense. The last British Social Attitudes Survey showed 51% of people said they were not religious, over 90% of people are not regular church attenders and in addition there are many non-Christian religious citizens of the UK. Much influential pre-Christian, non-Christian and post-Christian thought has shaped our country over the centuries. And even if we were a Christian country why would that mean we should have reserved places for Bishops in our parliament. Let alone those of one particular church which is not even the biggest church in this country? The Anglican Church has just over 1.5 million members in the UK and its Sunday services are attended regularly by only about 1.9% of the adult population. If we were going to have any church represented in our parliament it would be the Catholic church, which is bigger.
In any case, the views of the Bishops may in fact be rejected by a clear majority of Christians – even by a majority of those who define themselves as Protestants. All Bishops voted against the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, but polls show that 81% of protestants ‘think that a person who is suffering unbearably from a terminal illness should be allowed by law to receive medical help to die, if that is what they want’.
‘There are Christians in Britain so there should be Christians in Parliament’
Er, there are Christians in Parliament – there are elected MPs who are Christian, there are appointed peers who are Christian: plenty of them.
‘We need to have an ethical voice in our parliament’
People from many professions and from many philosophical and religious backgrounds are just as qualified if not more so, from moral philosophers to medical ethicists. And even if we agreed that Bishops may have something useful to contribute – why can’t they be appointed to the same system as everyone else? That appointment system has led to people who happen to be rabbis being appointed – why can’t Bishops be treated equally as part of that process rather than having automatic places as of right?
‘The Church of England is the country’s largest NGO, doing a lot of good works’
So what? Lots of people do good works and lots of organisations have mass memberships and broad social penetration, from cooperatives, to trade unions, to big national charities. They don’t get automatic seats in parliament though. Why should one special interest group get them but not others?