The bishops in the Lords have in recent years become far more active,
the intention being to demonstrate that they do have a vital role in the
constitution. Government proposals involve two options, one to retain
twelve of the twenty-six bishops and the other to expel them altogether.
Writing for ResPublica’s essay collection on Lords Reform “Our
House: Reflections on Representation and Reform in the House of Lords
the Bishop of Leicester, the Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, has argued
that they are representative of the regions, with church parishes
across the nation. In a Parliament that is very focused on London, they
bring a regional and localist perspective that should be welcomed;
surely this is an example of localism embedded into the constitution.
The bishops are more representative of the whole of Britain than MPs and
peers. The argument made by some, such as Theos, that more specialised,
political Lords Spiritual, less focused on the diocese, would diminish
that “rootedness” in the regions.
Furthermore the interests that
they represent are those of the voluntary sector so vital to civil
society. If British society is to be reinvigorated by turning more to
the little platoons that make up the Big Society, the leaders of the
faith groups, which make up such a strong part of that Big Society, must
have a place. So why remove them from the role in the legislature that
our history has given them?
Reform Proposals and the Dangers of a Reductive Policy of Equality
presence of Church of England Bishops is often criticised as
discriminating against other faiths and humanists. But the Church of
England itself is on record as not opposing in principle other
denominations or faith groups having appointees on the Bishops’ Bench.
Just as for historic reasons Church of England Bishops sit in the Lords,
so for historic reasons representatives of the established Church of
Scotland never sat in the Upper House. History has presented us with the
House of Lords as it is and has given us the Lords Spiritual who
fulfill a useful role.
Furthermore, while there are no rabbis
and no imams in the Lords ex officio (it must be remembered that the
mechanism of creating a life peerage remains for luminaries of other
religious traditions), it would seem to be cutting one’s nose off to
spite one’s face to expel bishops simply in adherence to an abstract
theory of equality. No one would gain, but all denominations and faiths
would be the losers. Other faith groups generally welcome the
contribution the bishops make (as can be seen by the contributions of
faith leaders to the Joint Committee). It is not straightforward
practically to select representatives of other faiths acceptable to all
strands of those faiths, but, there are very specific and strong reasons
why the Anglican leaders should have a place in the Lords – they
represent the established church, they have been there historically and
they can bring a spiritual dimension to debate that is welcomed by other
But aren’t they out of touch?
In a study
for its report “Coming off the Bench
”, Theos found that the bishops had
been voting and attending debates more often in recent days, but that
they rarely voted en bloc and seemed to see their role as one of witness
rather than to alter the course of legislation. For example on welfare
reform, the bishops have been more willing to speak out and vote. This
has been welcomed by some, but strongly criticized by those who feel
popular government policies are being delayed.
one agrees with the bishops on the specifics of a particular issue,
their role in the House of Lords cannot be to follow the short-term
opinion polls. They are not elected and must therefore be there to come
at matters from another angle than the current fashion of opinion. If
the role of the Upper House overall is to give the Commons the
opportunity to think again, the role of the Lords Spiritual is surely to
enable that reflection to take place informed by a spiritual and
Not only Leaders of the Established Church
stable and evolved constitution has provided us with an Upper House
made up of bishops in addition to peers. Is it right that the bishops
should have a say because they lead the national Christian church? As
the established Church, the Church of England is there for everyone, not
just those who can recite the Nicean Creed. According to the Church of
England, three out of ten people in England regard themselves as being
Anglican and six out of ten regard themselves as Christian.
there is much more to their role than this: The bishops do not just
speak for the Church of England and are there by right as Lords
Spiritual not Church of England delegates. Not only do the Lords
Spiritual keep Christianity in the public square, they represent the
concerns of other faith groups and even non-faith groups. The Bishops
represent a great diversity of groups, in particular civic society and
the local regions; they are not simply speaking for the established
church. They ensure more than a short-termist, secularist or populist
view dominates debate. This is to the benefit of the nation, whether we
always agree with what they say or not.