Tynwald and the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man

In a guest post, Peter Edge looks at the continuing debate about the Bishop of Sodor and Man’s ex officio membership of the island’s Legislative Council.

On 20 June, the Manx Tynwald voted on the place of the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man. In doing so it was returning to ground covered specifically in a vote before the last General Election to the House of Keys, but also to broader issues of church and state considered more recently in relation to legislative prayers.

The primary motion, moved by Ms Faragher, was for the removal of the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man from the Legislative Council before the appointment of a successor to the retiring Bishop, Bishop Eagles. An amendment was proposed by Mrs Maltby which would have resulted in the Lord Bishop remaining in the Council, but without a vote – “a move more similar to that of the Dean of Jersey”. The Speaker offered a supplementary amendment to that of Mrs Maltby, removing the Lord Bishop from the constitution of a quorum of either the Legislative Council or Tynwald. Tynwald, then, had the choice of no change, retaining the voice but not the vote, or removing the Lord Bishop from the Legislative Council and from Tynwald.

As might be expected in returning to a topic which was extensively, and well, debated less than a decade ago, the debate did not develop new lines of argument from those explored in 2017-2018. There was, perhaps, marginally more interest in comparison with other constitutions by at least some members; in the history of the Lord Bishop in Tynwald (with different members focusing on the founding of the Diocese in the Viking era, the first record of a Lord Bishop being involved in legislation in 1637, and the absence of the Lord Bishop from 1765 to 1791); the importance of recognising the religious composition of Manx society (although members differed on how that composition was to be characterised); and the importance of direct or indirect election as a source of democratic legitimacy. There were also echoes of the debate over legislative prayer, most explicitly by Mrs Sharpe. One innovation was the approach taken by Mr Smith, who stressed the qualities and experience of the current Lord Bishop before concluding that he would expect any future Bishop “to be similarly experienced and qualified” – in effect, seeing ecclesiastical preferment as an alternative route by which to bring in a capable member of Legislative Council.

The Maltby amendment was seen as a compromise in changing the role of the Lord Bishop; and recognising this, Ms Faragher noted that “a shuffle forward is better than no movement at all. So I would urge everyone really to support the amendment as this is simply about the vote and I feel surely people can agree that the vote is simply undemocratic”. The Maltby amendment secured a majority in the Keys (14 votes to 10) but was rejected by the Council unanimously. The unamended motion – which called for the removal of the Lord Bishop entirely – was lost in the Keys (8 votes to 16), and in the Council (unanimously).

So, what next? This vote was a motion in Tynwald calling for the introduction of legislation to remove the Bishop from the Legislative Council before a successor to the retiring Bishop was appointed. This sort of motion can be used to test the support for a measure before introducing legislation, as we saw for instance in relation to legislation to allow women to serve on Manx juries. The failure of the motion is not a bar on legislation being introduced. Given the votes on the motion, legislation removing the Lord Bishop’s vote might expect to pass the Keys but fail in the Council. Leaving aside possible changes of view on the merits following further debate and refinement from principle to legislative detail, this raises the question of the Key’s power to override the Council.

The Council can reject a Bill which has passed the House of Keys, but this rejection can be overridden after twelve months by the passing of a motion in the Keys with a special majority of 17 of the 24 members (under the Constitution Act 2006 s.1). Doing so for constitutional matters concerning the Council has a clear precedent. It was used in 2017 to pass legislation excluding members of the Legislative Council from the appointment and removal of the Chief Minister.

If 17 MHKs had supported the removal of the vote, this could have been read as a signal for legislation to remove the Lord Bishop’s vote to begin to be brought forward regardless of the unanimous opposition of the Legislative Council. With fewer than 17 MHKs supporting the removal, however, the likelihood of achieving the supermajority needed for override is difficult to judge. It would not be unreasonable for an MHK who opposed the removal of the vote to support the override on the basis that they supported the primacy of the directly elected Keys more. It would also, however, not be unreasonable for an MHK who opposed the removal of the vote to welcome the legitimate working of bicameralism in Tynwald to secure a result they regarded as right. The difference between 14, a clear majority of the House of Keys, and 17, a majority sufficient to override the Council, is a significant one – perhaps sufficiently so to remove this matter from the agenda for the immediate future.

The recurring debates over the position of the Lord Bishop were seen by some members as navel-gazing or the legislative equivalent of a neverendum. Mr Hooper saw returning to the issue differently: “This has been debated to death over the years and will no doubt continue to be debated because that is how you get reform … You keep pushing at the door until it opens. Society gradually changes. The membership of this Court gradually changes. Times move on; times change; views change”.

The next General Election to the House of Keys will be on 24 September 2026. I would expect to see this topic returned to at some point in the life of the new House.

Peter Edge

Cite this article as: Peter Edge, “Tynwald and the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man” in Law & Religion UK, 17 July 2023, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2023/07/17/tynwald-and-the-lord-bishop-of-sodor-and-man/#more-77930

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