A political blog from a High Tory perspective by Matthew Groves
Tuesday, 13 August 2013
The Point of the Lords Spiritual (originally published on Respublica's Disraeli Room on 29th March 2012)
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
The 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 faith groups.
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.
However, whether 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 Christian angle.
Not only Leaders of the Established Church
Our 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.
But 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.