‘The Bishops see their role as speaking for those of all faiths’ – the Government explains why it wants to keep the Church of England in the House of Lords
Asked why it had proposed reserved seats for Church of England Bishops in a reformed House of Lords, the government provided a number of unconvincing reasons, including that the ‘Bishops see their role as speaking for those of all faiths’. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has criticised the response and said that the Government ‘is yet to provide a proper justification’ for its proposals.
Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) the Rt Hon Lord Warner of Brockley asked a written question of the Government, after the APPHG had made a submission strongly criticising the proposals to retain reserved seats for the Bishops to the parliamentary Joint Committee looking at the draft House of Lords Reform Bill.
House of Lords Reform Bill [HL]
Asked by Lord Warner
To ask Her Majesty’s Government why reserved places for Church of England Bishops are included in a partially appointed and smaller House of Lords in their draft House of Lords Reform Bill.[HL12294]
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): The Church of England is the established Church in England and the relationship between Church and state is an important part of the constitutional framework that has evolved over centuries. The Government consider that, in a mainly elected House of Lords, it was right to maintain their presence, which provides an important dimension to the legislative process.
The Bishops see their role as speaking for those of all faiths. Religious belief has an important role in many people’s lives and it is desirable that this should be reflected in the House of Lords’ considerations.
In the event of a wholly elected second Chamber, there would be no reserved places for Church of England Bishops.
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘The Bishops may well believe that they ‘speak’ for those of all faiths but there are many, including Anglicans, who would disagree. The claim that Bishops are uniquely qualified to provide ethical and spiritual insights is factually incorrect and offensive. Far more troubling, however, is the tacit implication that the Bishops’ absurd claim that they ‘speak’ for all religious people has had some influence on the government’s proposals. Further, with every indication that religion is becoming increasingly less important to people and with the numbers and proportion of non-religious people growing year on year, the government’s reasoning is even less convincing.
‘It is also implied that there is some constitutional reason for having reserved seats for the Church of England in parliament, and that simply is not the case. The Government must be aware of that, since it gives no constitutional reason not to have automatic places for Bishops should the chamber be elected. In other words, the Government is yet to provide a proper justification for creating a new, independent and unaccountable bloc for Church of England in Parliament through proposing to retain the deeply undemocratic reserved places for the Church of England in our Parliament.’
The BHA and the APPHG have submitted separate evidence to the Joint Committee.
An ICM survey conducted on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in March 2010 found that 74% of the British public – including 70% of Christians – believe it is wrong that Bishops have an automatic right to a seat in the House of Lords http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/survey_on_Bishops_icm.pdf
In a 2006 ICM poll, 42% of people questioned said that the Government paid too much attention to religious groups and leaders http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/dec/23/religion.topstories3
Some further figures from other polls http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-surveys-statistics.
For more information read the BHA’s briefing on Bishops in the Lordshttp://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/1bha-briefing-Bishops-in-the-lords-2011-final.pdf.
Key points include:
- The presence of Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords as of right entrenches a privileged position for one particular branch of one particular religion that cannot be justified in today’s society, which is not only multi-faith but increasingly non-religious.
- The claim that Bishops are uniquely qualified to provide ethical and spiritual insights is factually incorrect and offensive.
- The presence of Church representatives in the legislature has ceased to be an accurate reflection of UK society and, indeed, increasing numbers of people are opposed to political privileges for religion