*Watch the evidence session http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=9552*
The conflicting views of the Church of England and the British Humanist Association (BHA) were clear at today’s evidence session on Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, the ‘Lords Spiritual’. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, were both invited to give evidence to the parliamentary Joint Committee looking at the draft House of Lords Reform Bill on Monday 28 November. The BHA had, last month, submitted detailed written evidence to the Committee opposing and criticising the government’s proposals on the Bishops.
In his written submission to the Joint Committee, Dr Williams described why he supports having Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords as of right and why the appointments process should also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths. The UK is the only democracy in the world to have reserved seats for clerics in its parliament, and the BHA has been campaigning for many years to have abolished this outdated, undemocratic, unequal and unfair tradition which, if retained, would seriously undermine the validity of any reform of the House of Lords.
Mr Copson set out why there are no good arguments for keeping reserved seats for the Church of England in parliament. Throughout the evidence session, Mr Copson emphasised that there was no constitutional reason to have automatic places for the Bishops, and anyone who argued for their retention was simply arguing to extend a religious privilege which has no place in a modern, liberal and diverse democracy.
He told the Committee that the argument of tradition, that we should have Bishops because we have had them for a long time and it’s best to leave things as they are, was irrelevant and insubstantial.
Mr Copson emphasised that many would disagree with the idea that the Bishops ‘speak’ for those of all faiths and that there are many too, including Anglicans, who would disagree that they can provide a unique ethical perspective in the chamber. He described how there was no case to be made for reserving seats for Bishops in the House of Lords on the basis that those men are uniquely well placed to provide vital expertise on matters of public policy, because they are not. This is the case not least because their views on the ethics of assisted dying for the terminally ill or equal rights for gay people or state-funded religious schools were unrepresentative and often lay far outside the mainstream.
Mr Copson spoke about how, increasingly, advocates of Bishops have also built their case on the position of the Church of England as our largest NGO – a civil society group with a branch in every community. However, he pointed out that it were the case that we should treat the Church as an NGO (doubtful given its entanglement with the state), why then should we consider it unique compared with trade unions or the National Trust or the Women’s Institute?
Mr Copson detailed for the Committee how there were clear objections to having automatic places for the Church of England Bishops on grounds of equality and fairness. If parliament is supposed to represent the people, Mr Copson questioned, why should only one denomination of only one religion have a guaranteed twelve seats when other denominations of that religion, other religions and other non-religious philosophies and approaches to life have no such representation? It would only be fair to represent all religions and philosophies. Mr Copson said this could immediately be seen to be impossible, not least because we would need an unfeasibly large second chamber to represent all shades of religious and non-religious opinion. Having reserved seats for Bishops of any number represents a privilege that is insupportable in today’s diverse and increasingly non-religious society.