Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Church of England comes out against elected Lords

That is the essential thrust of the statement yesterday from Bishop Tim Stevens, who speaks on behalf of the Bishops in the House of Lords.  Apparently the White Paper on Lords reform sets out two options for the Government: either a 100% elected chamber or a partly elected one which would retain about 20% of its members as appointed peers. Obviously, if the 100% option is taken, the Bishops would lose their places in the House; the 80/20 option leaves open the possibility of some Bishops still sitting in the Lords.

Predictably, the Bishop of Leicester wants to support a partially rather than wholly elected upper house. But he does not stop there. He says: "in proposing to replace the House of Lords with a wholly or largely elected second chamber, the case has not been made".  He aligns himself and his fellow Bishops with those who are saying that an elected Lords will be too politicised, and will lack the broad cross-section of experience that the current House has. He wants to kill off the proposed changes completely.

I suppose it is inevitable that the Church of England should fight to keep its representation in Parliament, and in fact, I for one am inclined to agree with the Bishop in his analysis of the elected Lords plan. Nor are he and I the only ones who think this. Apparently a strong cross-section of backbench MPs are lining up to fight the Government on this, if it should choose to take it further.  So the C of E may still end up on the winning side here.  But it is unusual for the Church to so openly oppose the Government on an issue that doesn't have a social justice element to it.  There are risks involved in this strategy, most obviously that to confront the politicians on their own ground is to risk losing whatever moral authority the Church might have when it speaks out on those social issues that are its more traditional province.  Although it is not a clear cut party-political issue, there is a loss of neutrality that will result from the Church's involvement in this debate.  There's also the unedifying prospect of Bishops lining up with the hereditary peers and party placemen in the fight to keep their bums on the leather benches of Westminster, something which could easily play badly in the media and lend ammunition to the secularists who bitterly resent the Church of England's role in national life. 

All in all, although the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords is a desirable thing, there is a danger of presenting an undesirable case for it.  If the media, politicans and public get the impression that Bishops are simply clinging to the remnants of the Victorian establishment, and enjoying their jollies to the seat of power, then it would be better if they all just gave up and left. If, on the other hand, we can re-establish some clarity about the Church's constiutional importance in guarding religious freedom and heritage, and the Bishops' role as a key part of a politically independent House of Lords, then the argument is worth having.  This is the kind of argument the Bishop of Leicester should be developing over the coming months. 


James Croft said...

Bishops are against the dismantling of religious privilege and the expansion of democracy?


Charlie said...

Did I say that? Let me check ... No, didn't think so.