F Rosa Rubicondior: Time To Remove The Bishops From The House Of Lords

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Time To Remove The Bishops From The House Of Lords

What on Earth are 26 Anglican bishops and archbishops still doing in the UK House of Lords, or upper chamber of our legislature?

I suspect most people brought up in proper democracies, where membership of legislative assemblies is with the permission of, and consent of, the people as expressed in free and fair elections, will be astonished to know that we even have unelected people in our upper house, let alone people who can have a say in our laws who are unaccountable to anyone and who acquired that right simply by being senior wizards in one particular Christian sect - Anglicanism.

Of course, none of the UK's upper chamber is elected. Some of them still sit by right of inheritance but most of those were done away with in the early years of the Blair Government as the first stage of reform of the House of Lords. The trouble was that no one could agree on what to do next so we are now saddled with a House which is partly based on heredity, partly based on political appointments by the Prime Minister, partly based on merit, having achieved some standing in the community, and then of course, those 26 Anglican bishops.

Those 26 get there simply because of what they are, not because of who they are or what they've achieved or contributed to public life. Five of them get there because they are one of three senior bishops - Durham, Winchester and London - or one of the two archbishops - York and Canterbury. The other 21 get a seat because it's Buggin's turn. They retire at age 70 if they don't die first, and the longest serving bishop who isn't already a member get his seat. As simple as that. No minimum time in post; no qualifications and above all no vote and no electorate. Mind you, it must be frustrating working out how many need to die or retire before you get your turn.

This means the recently-appointed first female Anglican bishop will have to wait for all 21 existing bishops to either die, reach the age of 70, or be appointed to one of the five guaranteed sees, before we get our first female 'Lord Spiritual'. Should could, of course be appointed to one of the five guaranteed sees in her own right.

In a way we're lucky. During the Industrial Revolution, as former small towns like Manchester in Lancashire were growing and being elevated to city status complete with a cathedral and a bishop, someone realised there were already enough bishops in the House and inserted a clause in the Bishopric of Manchester Act, 1847 to limit their number to 26.

So what are they there for, exactly?

According to the Church of England Website:

What do they do in Parliament?

There is always a Lord Spiritual in the House of Lords when it is sitting, to read prayers at the start of the day and to participate in the business of the House. Attendance in the House to read prayers is determined by the Lords Spiritual on a weekly rota basis, but bishops also choose to attend the House on an ad-hoc basis when matters of interest and concern to them are before it (the links on this page to individual Lords Spiritual provide more details).

Who do they represent in Parliament?

There is no 'Bishops' Party' and as non-aligned members, their activities in the Upper House are not whipped.

Like other members of the Lords, they do not represent a parliamentary constituency, although their work is often closely informed by their diocesan role.

They sit as individual Lords Spiritual, and as such they have much in common with the independent Crossbenchers and those who are not party-affiliated.

Their presence in the Lords is an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God's word and to lead people in prayer. Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House and, while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.

It's worth repeating and reflecting on that last couple of clauses - "they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians." Really? So, if you're a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Baptist or Jain, don't worry because you have a voice in the House of Lords. It's probably the Bishop of Llandaff or Litchfield. Never heard of him? Don't worry your little head about it; he knows what you're thinking because he's an Anglican bishop and reads the Bible.

And how do they know what these people wish them to say on their behalf? Do they go doorstepping or hold public meetings like a parliamentary candidate asking for your vote? Do they hold surgeries like MPs do to listen to their constituents' concerns and grievances and offer them advice and help? Have they studied economics, sociology, political philosophy? Not to get to where they are, certainly, and they have never stood for election and won on a range of policies in a manifesto. Nope! They got there because it was their turn and because they navigated their way through the Anglican Church's hierarchy to the grand position of Area Manager. God will make sure they know what to say because they devoutly say their prayers every night and morning.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Marcus Welby. Old Etonian aristocrat and former multimillionaire oil executive.
One of the areas of government in which the Anglican bishops participate (or should that be interfer?) is in medical ethics, health and social care policy part of which is the running and reform of the NHS.

But these bishops have nothing more than incidental experience in health and social care or for that matter the medical and economic or political philosophy behind concepts of health and social care and privatised versus socialised medicine. I would be willing to bet many of them wouldn't know who Beveridge was or which prime minister gave us the NHS or which party he led, or when and why social care was hived off from health care and who we should blame for it.

So, with less than ten percent of the population ever going to an Anglican church except for other people's weddings and funerals, and with membership haemorrhaging at such a rate that some have forecast the final demise of the church within the next ten years, how can these clerics claim a right to meddle in the nation's political affairs? They have no more entitlement to it than an area manager of any other mutual interest group such as a mutual building society, the Ramblers' Association or the Football Association.

State Opening of Henry VIII's Parliament at Blackfriars, 1523. By Sir Thomas Wriothesley (Garter King of Arms, 1505-1534)
The only reason for their presence seems to be the long-refuted notion that somehow a bishop, especially an Anglican one, would have a direct line to the magic man in the sky who tells us what's right and wrong, and so are best placed to decide on matters of morality. They are, of course, one of the last remaining vestiges of the time when Christian clerics demanded, and received, the power to control almost all aspects of our lives and, through the fear of what death had in store, and the power of priest to ensure eternal salvation or eternal damnation, it took a brave monarch to stand up to them.

They are a throwback to the time when the monarch and his barons formed a mutual benefit society with the clerics who blessed and validated their power and privilege in return for giving them monopoly access the the people who they controls between them through fear and superstition backed up when necessary by the military and judicial power of the state.

And what morality is there in one which subscribes to the notion of 'right' and 'wrong' being decided by the arbitrary and capricious whim of a magic invisible man with a history of random genocide, infanticide, egomania and indifference to suffering, and on the threats and promises such an unpredictable malevolence offers, and not one based on notions of empathy, maximisation of happiness, minimisation of suffering and a determination to leave a better world for our grandchildren than the one our grandparents left us?

These anachronisms have no place in the government of a modern secular democracy, least of all one which has for all practical purposes given up the Christian superstition whatever its flavour and which no longer defers obsequiously to clerical arrogance and a sense of entitlement which was never realistic in earlier times and is delusional at best now. Paradoxically, the only Anglican bishop worth paying heed to would be one who turned down his seat in the House of Lords on the grounds that he wasn't worthy of it.

The Anglican bishops and archbishops should give the country the moral lead they pretend to be giving it and withdraw from the Upper House and cease their meddling. If they aren't capable of putting their personal power and privilege to one side and doing the right thing by the nation, we should relieve them of that responsibility once and for all.

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