Bishops in the Lords: a non-English perspective

Kelvin Holdsworth’s comment on Parliamentary Reform and the Bishops is along very similar lines to some of my own thoughts on the debate about Church and State in the UK. Any discussion needs to begin from some very basic fundamentals:

  • There are four countries in the UK: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales;
  • There are three legal jurisdictions: England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland;
  • There are three devolved legislatures: the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales – with reserved powers to the Parliament of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland; and
  • The Church of England is established by law, the Church of Scotland is also established by law (or so I would contend) albeit in a very different way – and there is no establishment of religion in Northern Ireland or Wales.

None of this is obscure knowledge – it’s what Iain McLean once described as Key Stage 1 on Church and State – but however embarrassing it may be to put it in such bald terms, it is something that people tend to forget very easily. So when commentators talk (as some of them do) about the place of the Lords Spiritual and the Church of England in “national life”, to which nation’s life are they referring?

In The Shaping of Prophecy (Geoffrey Chapman: London 1995) Adrian Hastings suggested at pp 115–116 that much Anglican thinking on ecclesiology had been

“… bewitched by the unanalysed mirage of a triangle consisting of Nation-State, National Church, Established Church”.

I think that Hastings was right – as he usually was on matters of Church and State – and I made a similar point myself about there being four Anglican Churches rather than one in my contribution to the Colloquy on Questions related to State and Religion organised in 2007 by the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In the UK we have produced “variable-geometry devolution”, with a slightly-different range of devolved powers to each of the three devolved legislatures. Moreover, there are important areas of policy – not just defence and foreign relations, but taxation and finance (mostly) and employment law – which are reserved to Westminster. A Scot, an Ulsterman or a Welshwoman might legitimately ask, “Hang on: why should an English bishop – from a foreign Church – get to have a vote on a matter that affects me directly?”. And the answer is: “almost entirely by accident of history”. Moreover, there is no obvious or simple way of redressing the balance.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s view that if there were to be a religious representative from Wales, “the realistic choice would be the Anglican Archbishop” is probably sensible in terms of continuity but perhaps not so viable in terms of Realpolitik. Would Welsh Roman Catholics, for example, want to be “represented” by the Archbishop of Wales?

Similarly in Scotland: the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Kirk changes annually – and even supposing that the Moderator pro tem was given a temporary seat in the Lords, would he or she have the time to devote to it? And supposing (as was once floated in relation to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor) the Prime Minister of the day offered a seat in the Lords to a leading member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, would canon law allow that person to accept it? Canon 285 §3 of the Code of Canon Law 1983 states unequivocally that

“Clerics are forbidden to assume public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power”: Officia publica, quae participationem in exercitio civilis potestatis secum ferunt, clerici assumere vetantur.

As to the Scottish Episcopal Church, even though it has produced national figures such as Richard Holloway, it is quite small in comparison with the Kirk and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.

In conclusion, my own view is that, given the current makeup of the House of Lords, the presence of the Lords Spiritual does no harm at all and quite a lot of good. But one can well understand why someone not resident in England might take a different view. And then there’s the question of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on issues that only affect England.

But that would be another post – if it were about law and religion, which it’s not.

1 thought on “Bishops in the Lords: a non-English perspective

  1. Pingback: Scotland, independence, wider constitutional implications and bishops in the Lords (again) | Law & Religion UK

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