Journal

Devil’s advocate – why bishops in the House of Lords must go

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Political power should be earned

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We’re not living in the 14th century anymore: the time has come to get rid of bishops in the House of Lords.

There are currently 26 Anglican bishops sitting in the upper chamber. Called “Lords Spiritual”, these clergymen read prayers at the day’s beginning, debate on issues both important and trivial, and shuffle off into the voting lobbies with their colleagues. As the Church of England website proudly proclaims, they have done so since the turn of the 14th century.

Times change. We no longer live in the 14th century and we no longer need the Lords Spiritual. What we need instead is constitutional reform.

The vast majority of peers are appointed. The Lords Spiritual are not. Five positions are staffed by “the Great Sees” — the incumbent bishops of Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester. The remaining 21 are automatically filled by the most senior bishops from other English dioceses.

Though harmless on its face, this offends basic notions of democracy. Simply put, no one should be able to vote on legislation unless they have been previously vetted in some way. We want a legislature that is subject to prior checks — a body of lords whose quality is assured by procedure. Political power must be earned.

More importantly though, the modern House of Lords is a body whose members are appointed for their expertise. Their lordships and ladyships bring their own individual experiences, hard-earned knowledge and, indeed, bias to bear on the legislation of the day. Their views are diverse and the clash of arguments is designed to produce an informed decision. This synthesis of ideas is vital to the legislative process.

The Lords Spiritual are about as diverse as The Daily Mail office party — but with even fewer women. The voting of the bishops is almost always unified, only rarely is it split between the two sides of the debate.

This is unsurprising. The bishops all have chosen to commit their lives and careers to faith — their status as bishops in essence recognises their adherence to the Christian creed. It is to be expected that their views are conservative and rarely venture outside orthodox values. Their individual biases are so similar that they amount to a single, collective narrowness.

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Now the argument will surely be made that the Anglican Church is still relevant because it represents English citizens and provides a spiritual voice inside the House of Lords, thereby adding to the debate.

There are two problems with this.

First, public goodwill towards the Lords Spiritual has fast evaporated. In a 2010 ICM Poll, 74% of respondents thought it was wrong for unelected bishops to automatically sit in the House of Lords. Similarly, in a 2012 YouGov Survey 58% of people stated that bishops should not be able to sit and vote in the Lords, while 65% believed that the bishops were out of touch with public opinion. The Lords Spiritual can hardly claim to be representative if their representees disapprove of their presence.

Second, it is false reasoning to say that bishops are necessary for providing spiritual insight. Religion is said to be a pervasive moral code that underpins a faithful person’s lifestyle and behavior. Why then can laymen and laywomen not contribute the same understanding of spirituality to the debate? Would that not be more representative of religion’s place in modern Britain? To say that bishops have no place in the House of Lords is not to say the same of religion — religion has its place, but it should be of the kind that everyday British people subscribe to, not the narrow doctrine of the Anglican Church leaders.

If you are wondering just how narrow that doctrine is, earlier this year a parliamentary petition to remove the Lords Spiritual from the Upper House — sparked by the Anglican Church’s decision to impose sanctions on a liberal US Church for consecrating a gay priest — has garnered over 15,000 signatures.

The offending decision was made by a council of worldwide leaders of the Anglican Church, the unfortunately named “primates”. First among their number is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the foremost spokesperson for Church of England values and, Lord (Most) Spiritual — much of the current controversy is attributable to him.

However, Welby is not alone. The Lords Spiritual from York, Winchester, Chester and Peterborough have all publicly voiced their outdated views on homosexual rights (though there is not so much about this on the Church of England website). Such intolerance should have no place in our legislative process.

So what is the solution?

In short: constitutional reform. Parliament must pass a law removing the Anglican bishops from the House of Lords. In 2016, there is no need for outdated, unelected individuals in our legislative process, individuals who fail to meet the moral standards of the very people they claim to represent. While making clear that religion, through laymen, contributes to the debate, we should recognise that we have outgrown the Lords Spiritual and dispense with them accordingly. Our constitution, our democratic process and ultimately our legislation would be much the healthier for it.

Ravi Jackson is a UCL graduate and is now studying the GDL at City Law School.

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23 Comments

Anonymous

Odd to attack the presence of the bishops as undemocratic but defend the rest of them as ‘experts’.

Anonymous

Also, ‘the vast majority of peers are elected’.

No, only the hereditary peers are elected. That’s 92 out of 800 or so.

Anonymous

Life peers are elected. Hereditary peers (as their names suggest) are unelected. As you say, that’s 92/800 or so, plus the bishops, who are unelected

Exetah

He’s being sarcastic… And no Life Peers aren’t elected, they’re appointed. Are you the same mug that wrote the article?

Anonymous

No, I’m afraid you’re very very wrong.

Lord Harley

Life peers are appointed. Hereditary peers are limited to 92 in number. When one dies the remaining 91 elect a replacement from all hereditary peers without a seat (trying to keep the same proportion of party members)

Uwotm8

“The vast majority of peers are elected”….? ….also, the Bishops are non-voting members of the House of Lords

Lord Harley

Not true. The bishops are full voting members you nonce

Richeldis

Is it not undemocratic to try and silence a group because you believe their views to be “outdated”. True democracy is not based upon generational whim, but on the sound airing of all views to inform consensus. Your philosophy will lead to a dictatorship of relativism.

The Lords Spiritual frequently advocate non-Christian views, as a glance at any of the speeches will tell you.

Lord Harley

But its so easy for me to attack people without doing research. It’s only legal cheek after all

synicallawstudent

I don’t think the guy that wrote this is stupid enough to believe the vast majority of peers are elected or that the hereditary peers are experts… Happy April Fools everyone!

Exetah

This dude is either trolling you guys for April 1st or seriously retarded

NB

Whilst it is difficult to argue that the House of Lords is fit for purpose, and if any institution in our government requires reform it is this one, this article seems myopically focused on the role of a few religious actors.

“In a 2010 ICM Poll, 74% of respondents thought it was wrong for unelected bishops to automatically sit in the House of Lords. ” In that same Poll 65% of the respondents stated that it was important that : “Anyone who sits in the House of Commons or the House of Lords and votes on laws is elected.” Both big numbers and given slightly different phrasing of the questions I would suggest as many folk out there are appalled to see any unelected crony (be they political or religious) stacking our law making machinery (as already pointed out in the previous comments, the ‘vast majority’ of the HoL is most certainly not elected). There are currently nearly 900 members of the House of Lords, a number set to increase as the current government (as all governments do) stacks it full of cronies and yes men, whilst simultaneously cutting the number of elected members of the house of commons to 650. This means that un-elected law makers will soon outnumber our elected representatives by almost 2:1!
Booting the Anglican Bishops out of politics might serve to placate the many other religious leaders in this country but would do nothing to root out the rotten core of this system of privilege. The real reform required to drag this ancient and failing institution in to the 21st century goes far, far deeper. A fully elected second house, elected along proportional representation principles is the only House that will ever get my support. A fundamental shift in the balance of power between the two houses and a slashing of numbers in the House of Lords would become essential, only then could we call our system truly democratic.

TROLOLOL

Thanks for the politics AS level essay copy/paste mate

Lord Harley

This wouldn’t even pass AS level

LexiconB

TLDR

Boh Dear

The time has come to get rid of… the House of Lords

Fixed your post.

A. Lawyer.

A poorly written piece by someone with an agenda.

We’re hardly a theocracy, as some members of another faith would like the world to be.

The Lyle

Why not replace the Lords Spiritual with Gurus, Mullahs, that De’ath Caliph giy, Pastors, Zen Masters, the Pope and the Tantric Mahasri yogin of the Cosmic woo, just to be all inclusive, multi cultural and PC N all

Anonymous

Who quality controls the LC journal? Guessing no proper reviews for stuff like this to get through.

Absolute dross.

Anonymous

Lay off the 14th century, dude.

smiting evil institutions with mediaeval siege weaponry

It’s clearly time for the beershops to go. We need a secularist, non-religious upper chamber.
Matters of soul and conscience should be separate from matters temporal.
Let them or other religious or non-religious figures be appointed because they have done some good in society, not because of their institutional affiliations.

Boris

The “bishops” are as appointed as life peers and probably more vetted

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