Why are bishops still writing our laws – and why is Nick Clegg about to make it worse?

Here’s a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn’t at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country’s citizens must obey? The answer is Iran… and Britain.

In 2011, the laws that bind all Brits are voted on by 26 Protestant bishops in the House of Lords who say they are there to represent the Will of God. They certainly aren’t there to represent the will of the people: 74 per cent of us told a recent ICM poll the bishops should have to stand for election like everybody else if they want to be in parliament. These men use their power to relentlessly fight against equality for women and gay people, and to deny you the right to choose a peaceful and dignified death when the time comes.

And here’s the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now Deputy Prime Minister in coalition with Conservative David Cameron, to “modernise” the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.

But let’s step back a moment and look at how all this came to pass. The bishops owe their places in parliament to a serial killer. Henry VIII filled parliament with bishops because they were willing to give a religious seal of approval to him divorcing and murdering his wives – and they have lingered on through the centuries since, bragging about their own moral superiority at every turn.

Pore through the history books and you’ll find they opposed almost all of the progressive changes in our history. The Suffragettes regarded them as such relentless enemies of equality for women they set fire to two of their churches. In 1965, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury scorned the people who were campaigning for nuclear-armed countries to step back from the brink, on the grounds that “a nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway”. In 2008, his successor, Rowan Williams, said it would be helpful if shariah law – with all its vicious misogyny, which says that women are worth half of a man – was integrated into British family courts.

Today, the bishops claim they are really motivated by concern for the poor and vulnerable. But which two bills have brought them out to vote in largest numbers in recent years? The first was to vote against the Equality Bill, which finally criminalised discrimination against gay people in the provision of services to the public. The bishops rallied and railed to keep it legal for people to effectively hang signs saying “No Gays” outside their shops, charities and hotels. They even threatened to shut down services helping the poor if they were required to give them to gay people – suggesting their much bragged-about opposition to poverty is pretty shallow.

The bishops’ second greatest passion is to prevent you from being able to choose to end your suffering if you are dying. Some 81 per cent of British people believe that if you are terminally ill and can’t bear to live any longer in an agony that won’t cease, you should be allowed to ask a doctor to help you end it. If you believe this is “evil” – as the bishops do – that’s fine: you can choose to stay alive to the bitter end, no matter how awful the pain becomes. That’s your right. But for the bishops, that’s not enough. They want to impose their conviction on the rest of us. They don’t even speak for their own followers: the polling consistently finds huge majorities of Christians support euthanasia too.

The bishops didn’t turn out to protect the poor and vulnerable. They turned out to hurt them. The Right Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth declares he is there to show “Parliament is accountable not only to the electorate but to God”. This is a surreal situation: Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth, yet we are on a lonely shelf with Iran in handing a chunk of our parliament to clerics. The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious. And remember: even 70 per cent of Protestant Christians say it’s wrong for the bishops to have these seats.

Nick Clegg promised before the election he would introduce a 100 per cent elected House of Lords – which would obviously mean an end to the bishops’ privileges there. Yet now people close to him say he is going for only 80 per cent elected, with the bishops remaining on the undemocratic benches. And it gets worse. People close to him whisper he is planning to add even more unelected religious figures: an imam, the chief rabbi, and others, in pursuit of the multiculturalism the Prime Minister just disowned. So we may soon have the bizarre sight of an atheist Deputy Prime Minister expanding the number of unelected religious figures in our parliament in the name of “modernisation”.

Last week, David Cameron gave a speech telling British Muslims – rightly – that they had to support “equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality… This is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things”. Yet he has been a key defender behind the scenes of retaining the bishops in parliament, even though they explicitly oppose “equal rights regardless or race, sex, or sexuality.” They refuse to allow women to hold the top jobs in their organisation. They demanded an opt-out from laws banning discrimination against gay people, to allow individuals to express their “conscience” – a loophole so large it would render the law meaningless. Using Cameron’s logic, they oppose “what defines us as a society” and do not “belong here”, yet he is keeping them in a position of great unelected power. It seems his “muscular liberalism” only applies to people with brown skins.

The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded “arrogant” by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don’t know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only “know” how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?

None of this has to happen. We do not have to accept our laws being formulated by people we did not choose and do not support. But Nick Clegg needs to be pressured, fast. He has spent the last nine months shedding every principle he ever espoused. Is he now even going to abandon his atheism, and give the forces of organised religion yet more power over us? Mr Clegg, in the name of the God you and I don’t believe in – step back from the bishops.

To join the campaign against this, join, volunteer for or donate to the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association who are leading the fight-back.

Johann Hari | 18th February 2011

One Response to Why are bishops still writing our laws – and why is Nick Clegg about to make it worse?

  1. john ricketts

    As so ofte, Johann Hari has got it right.

    His chooses colourful words at times, but who can refute his logic?

    In the 2001 Census, Jedism came out as the fourth largest religious group in Britain, surpassing each of Sikhism, Judaism, Buddhism; should the Chief Rabbi be granted a seat in the Lords, surely a senior Jedi Knight must have a greater claim.

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