Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill – Second Reading

On Thursday, Lord Faulks moved that the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill be read for a second time, [HL Hansard 12 Feb 2015 Vol 759(104) Col 1364]. Given that it was introduced at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, on behalf of the Church and with the support of Her Majesty’s Opposition, there seems to be little doubt as to the successful passage of this government Bill throughout its various parliamentary stages. Nevertheless, in addition to placing it an historical context, the Lords’ debate provided some insights into its application, in addition to apposite anecdotes from their Lordships.

Opening the debate, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Faulks) (Con) reminded the House [Col 1366]:

“ … Not only are the 26 Lords spiritual active and valued Members of this House, but their presence reflects the enduring constitutional arrangement of an established Church of England with the monarch and head of state as its Supreme Governor. Bishops sit as independent Members of this House. As well as leading the Chamber in prayer at the start of each sitting day, they seek to be a voice both for people of faith and for the communities they serve.

Their presence in the Lords is an extension of the Church of England’s general vocation in its role as the established church. In fulfilling its national mission, it is right that the church should, at all levels, seek to reflect the nation that it serves. That is why we welcome the decision to allow women as well as men to be bishops, and why we believe it right to make arrangements for female bishops to sit as Lords spiritual as soon as possible.”

In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave the background to the Bill, and said [Col 1367],

“ … The 1878 [Bishoprics] Act continued the system begun four decades earlier by the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847, in which the number of seats for Lords Spiritual was fixed at 26—the number it had been since the Reformation. This was barely 15 years after the opposition of many prelates to the Great Reform Bill, when such was the popularity of the stance taken by the Bishops’ Benches that my predecessor, William Howley, [ABC 1828 to 1848] was attacked in his carriage in that notable city of disorder, Canterbury. The account, which may be apocryphal, has Howley’s chaplain exclaiming, ‘Your Grace, they have thrown a dead cat at me!’, to which the archbishop replied, ‘You may thank God, sir, it was not a live one’.

So the queue was created not out of a desire for bishops to spend their first few years finding their feet in their dioceses, but simply because there were going to be more people than places. In the case of the occupants of the five senior sees not affected by this Bill, we have continued to enter automatically”, [emphasis added]

He continued, [Col 1368],

“ … Quite what the pattern of appointments will be over the next few years remains to be seen. Once things have settled down, my expectation would be that many women who become diocesan bishops will, like their male colleagues, learn the ropes first by suffering—

Noble Lords: Oh!

The Archbishop of Canterbury: By serving as suffragans—I always have trouble with that. Suffering as servants or serving as suffragans—it works either way. However, that is far from the universal pattern among men, and I shall be very disappointed indeed in these early years if we do not see a number of very experienced and qualified senior women priests move straight into diocesan posts.”

He concluded by commenting on the criticism from some quarters regarding the arrangements for the consecration service for the new Bishop of Burnley. Like the Archbishop of York, he believed that the five principles in the House of Bishops’ declaration, which formed part of the General Synod’s agreement to women bishops, require a degree of gracious restraint and forbearance on all sides.

“They commit the church to seeking the flourishing of all parts of the church, whatever their views on this question. They are not one-way traffic—far from it. The fact that the new Bishop of Burnley attended the consecration of the Bishop of Stockport and that she then attended his consecration despite their theological differences over women’s ministry is precisely the sort of mutual flourishing that we are seeking to promote.”

Lord Elton (Con) noted [1370] that a large part of the function of a Second Reading speech is normally for a Member of this House to voice his own reservations and give notice of questions which he will want to go into thoroughly in Committee. However, neither he nor other Noble Lords had significant reservations:

  • there were a number of observations on the positive discrimination introduced by the Bill, although its necessity was generally accepted;
  • Baroness Berridge (Con) raised the issue of the lack of racial diversity in the Church’s bishops, [Col 1372];
  • Baroness Howe of Idlicote (CB), vice-president of WATCH—Women and the Church, welcomed the Bill, although the Bishop of Leicester suggested that her comments on the consecration of the Bishop of Burnley “do not bear, either directly or indirectly, on the substance of the legislation before us”, [Col 1381].

The “And finally …” comment goes to Baroness Trumpington (Con), who at 92 years old “thought that, as such, [she] was entitled to represent those women who are not here today in welcoming the future bishop, in whose elevation we are rejoicing at this moment.” She said [Col 1387]:

“A long time ago when I first came here, [in 1988] Lord Hailsham was on the Woolsack and for some unknown reason there were about 11 Bishops on the Benches. It so happened that Lord Hailsham sneezed. There was a very short pause, then he turned to the Bishops and said, “Won’t any of you bless me?”.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House[1].

[1] The Committee stage in the Lords is scheduled for 26 February and the Report stage for 12 March.


Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill – Second Reading" in Law & Religion UK, 13 February 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/02/13/lords-spiritual-women-bill-second-reading/


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