Parliamentary Reform and the Bishops

Apart from the political repercussions resulting from the statement of the Deputy Prime Minister, (DPM), on 6th August that the plans for a reform of the House of Lords are to be dropped, reported here, the decision affords the Church of England an opportunity to revisit the involvement of the Bishops in the Upper House, (‘the Lords Spiritual’).  Responding to the DPM’s statement, the Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, the Rt. Rev. Tim Stevens stated:

‘The House of Lords still needs a measure of reform, not least to formalise its disciplinary procedures and to resolve the problem of its ever-increasing size – as the Deputy Prime Minister himself acknowledged today. . . . . . . . . ‘The decision not to proceed with this Bill gives Parliament and the country a welcome opportunity to pause and think again about what it wants a Second Chamber to do, not just who it wants as its members. It also means that Parliament will be able to focus without distraction on the most pressing economic and social challenges that face our country now and in the months ahead.’

A Church of England view of reform of the House of Lords

The position of the Church of England on the reform of the House of Lords and the possible directions it might now take may be gleaned from its written submission, (GS MISC 1004), to the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill and the oral evidence of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Joint Committee on 15 November 2011.  Extracts from the latter are reproduced below.

Bishops in the Upper House, Q444 and Q428:

‘An Anglican Bishop is present in the House of Lords because of a process of appointment, scrutiny and public responsibility that is clearly defined.  I do not think that [the hereditary principle for Peers and the appointment of bishops] are equivalent. I am afraid that ‘anachronism’ is, to me, a shortcut in an argument.

Bishops . . . . . are not life Peers. They are Peers of Parliament. They sit in the House until they retire as diocesan Bishops. They serve only when they are in harness in the diocese. They bring to bear their experience of all aspects of civil society in their own diocesan area. It has been said that they are in effect the only Members of the upper House who have something like constituencies. . . . . .

The appointments procedure takes for granted that a Bishop has a very visible role in civil society. . . . . . One of the things that we hear most often in the Crown Nominations Commission from non-church representatives from the diocese who have been consulted is that they want someone who will speak for the city, speak for the county and speak for the region. . . . . .

The Chief Rabbi has said that if the established church is removed from the public square, common values become more difficult to articulate.’

The full statement by the Chief Rabbi, quoted in GS Misc 1004, was perhaps even more supportive:

‘disestablishment would be a significant retreat from the notion that we share any values and beliefs at all. And that would be a path to more, not fewer, tensions. Establishment secures a central place for spirituality in the public square. This benefits all faiths, not just Christianity.’

The Number of Bishops in the Upper House, Q429:

‘At the moment . . . . . . the 26 Bishops are deployed on a basis that assumes that none of them is in a position to be a full-time working Peer. The number 26 allows us the flexibility to have enough meaningful participation. A reduction in that number in present circumstances would leave us in a very difficult position if we wish to participate.’

Although Canon C 18 Of Diocesan Bishops provides for the attendance of a diocesan bishop on the Parliament or on the Court [Canon C18 §8], it makes it clear that the primary role is to provide leadership within his diocese as ‘chief pastor’ and ‘principal minister, [Canon C18 §4].

Consideration of how the rota system might work given the proposed reduction in the number of bishops, Q445:

[The Draft Bill proposed that on completion of the reforms, the 12 Lords Spiritual would be made up of five ‘Named Lords Spiritual’ (the two Archbishops and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester) and seven ‘Ordinary Lords Spiritual’ (diocesan bishops – almost certainly to be referred to as Ordinary Ordinaries!)].

The five Named Lords Spiritual in the draft Bill already provide a certain level of general coverage. I do not think it would be completely lost even if it were just those five—that is, Durham, Winchester, London, York and Canterbury. As I indicated earlier, we are looking actively at how we might meet some of these considerations. For example, if we were looking to nominate another seven Lords Spiritual, we would deliberately set out to identify particular Sees in particular parts of the country, which would be assumed to be those associated with the Lords Spiritual. We would want to keep that geographical concern very much at the forefront of our minds because it is an important element in what the Lords Spiritual have offered.

An additional option is suggested in the response of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, GS Misc 1004 to the Joint Committee, [para 14]:

‘. . . . . . we note that there are three Lords Spiritual (the Archbishops and the Bishop of London) who are members of the Privy Council and one alternative to the provisions in the draft bill would be for these three Sees to be Named, leaving nine places to be filled from the other 39 English diocesan Sees.’

Separate representation of other faiths in the House of Lords, Q442:

‘I am certainly not aware of such pressure. I am not aware either at the moment—and this is an interesting shift in my lifetime and the lifetime of most people around the table—of any great pressure for disestablishment from any Christian body . . . . . most non-Anglican Christian bodies in the United Kingdom would now see disestablishment as part of an aggressively secularising programme that they would want to resist.  Whatever the historic unease there may have been about the privileges of Anglicans in Parliament, that landscape has now changed, I think, irreversibly.

Disestablishment and the role of the Bishops in Parliament, Q443:

‘There is no one little thing that you can change or remove in order to disestablish the church.  The experience of the Welsh church suggests that it is like pulling a loose thread on a badly made cardigan and finding that you are left with a ball of wool—a lot unravels. That being said, for the Bishops not to be part of the scrutiny and discernment that go on around legislation in this country would be, at the very least, to send a signal that the voice of faith in the general sense was not particularly welcomed in that process.’

Representation of other Faith Communities, Q436:

‘. . . . . . we as Bishops do not assume that we have the right to speak for other faith communities—that would be very insulting, I think, to other communities—but I think that most Bishops would agree that this is a role into which we have been increasingly, and willingly, shunted by the facts of social and religious life in a variety of localities.

The difficulties that I flagged a moment ago are very real ones. People sometimes assume that all faith communities must be pretty much of the same shape and that there must therefore be equivalent national leaders for Muslim, Hindu or Jewish communities. This is by no means the case. It is extremely difficult, I think, to decide how you would set about finding anything like comparable representation. It may therefore be that, for the moment, until we think of some better scheme, the Bishops faute de mieux act as spokesmen because they act as conveners, to use my earlier word, in the localities.’

The possible role of non-conformist church in Wales in a reformed second chamber, Q440:

‘The rather dramatic change in the religious demography of Wales since 1920 means that the Anglican Church in Wales is now considerably larger than the non-conformist churches, which were once superior in numbers and public influence . . . . . . It was one factor that I think shaped that discussion in the 1990s, which, as I say, came to the view that, if there were to be a religious representative from Wales, the person to look to realistically would be the Anglican Archbishop’.


Whilst the Archbishop’s responses to the Committee give a positive impression of the impact of the Lords Spiritual, this is undermined by paragraphs 39 and 40 of GS 1004:

‘ . . . . .whilst bishops take advice, no whip is either imposed or observed that binds their activities to the expressed view of their diocese, the General Synod or Archbishops‟ Council.

On legislative matters Lords Spiritual are as much to be found taking divergent views as uniform ones – and the parliamentary record shows that they will speak and vote accordingly. As the Lords Spiritual do not conceive of themselves as a ‘bloc’, or behave as one, there has been only a handful of occasions when, in very close votes, their votes have been decisive.’ 

Incomprehensible as such views may seem to a lobbyist, they reflect the approach to political power of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches.

Some commentators have suggested that the Lords Spiritual would be more effective if their selection were to take account of the ‘individual personality, experience, expertise and priorities of the individuals within the available pool of bishops’.  Perhaps instead of proclaiming ‘Bishops safe, as Clegg drops Lords’ Bill’, the headline in the Church Times should have read ‘Bishops miss opportunity for strategic reorganization.  The direction given by the new Archbishop(s) will be followed with interest.

8 thoughts on “Parliamentary Reform and the Bishops

  1. >Incomprehensible as such views may seem to a lobbyist,
    >they reflect the approach to political power
    >of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches.

    Well, not quite. There’s four Anglican Churches in the UK, not one, and mention is only made here of two of them. Confusion between the idea of an “Anglican Church” and what is actually the Church of England is highly pertinent to the question of whether the British parliament should have faith representation anywhere in it.

    It seems to me that the Scottish Episcopal Church would be at best agnostic about some of the questions about parliamentary representation raised above. Whilst it seems to me that the church would probably want to avoid at all costs commenting formally on the nature of the English establishment, there would be plenty of individuals who would press for the English bishops to be removed from the legislature should the question ever be raised within the [Scottish] General Synod.

  2. Kelvin

    Many thanks for your comments. My use of the term Anglican was in the context of the Archbishop’s Speech to Pope Benedict XVI on 17th September 2010, as in the hyperlink. The Archbishop said:

    ‘It is a particular pleasure that on this historic occasion we are able to come together as bishops of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in this country to greet you . . . . .’

    The Archbishop indicates that he is speaking on behalf of ‘British bishops’ and my point was that the view of political power he expressed:

    ‘[w]e do not as churches seek political power or control, or the dominance of Christian faith in the public sphere; but the opportunity to testify, to argue, sometimes to protest, sometimes to affirm – to play our part in the public debates of our societies. And we shall, of course, be effective not when we have mustered enough political leverage to get our way but when we have persuaded our neighbours that the life of faith is a life well lived and joyfully lived’

    reflects the position of the Roman Catholic Church as expressed in the Encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (2005) [para. 28]:

    ‘This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.’

    Nevertheless, I take your point.


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  4. Thanks – yes, I see what you mean.

    It seems to be fairly obviously to be the case that there would be people (yes, bishops) present who could affirm what the Archbishop said in those circumstances whilst not being at all supportive of having English Bishops in the Lords or indeed of the English establishment position.

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