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

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By Ravi Jackson on

Political power should be earned


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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