Musings on Bishops in the House of Lords

This post is pretty behind the times, but I am going to write it anyway. I have just read an article on the Church of England website about Bishops in the House of Lords, and it provoked a couple of points to spew from my fingertips. You can read the full article here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2011/11/archbishops-question-case-for-elected-house-of-lords.aspx

The first of my comments concerns the following extract:

In their submission the Archbishops express concern that the Government’s proposals do not address the question of what the powers and functions of a reformed Lords should be, focusing instead on questions of composition and election. A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords would, they argue, be more inclined to challenge the decisions of MPs and weaken the conventions that currently guarantee the primacy of the House of Commons. Conflict and gridlock between Houses would, they argue, lead to a decline in the reputation and public trust in Parliament as a whole: “We are concerned that the proposals in the Draft Bill may, by leading inevitably to a more assertive approach to conflict and disagreement with the Commons, make it harder for the institution as a whole to sustain the trust and confidence of the electorate.”

It’s lovely to see the bishops caring so much for the power of the House of Commons. One can’t help but wonder why they don’t advocate disbanding the House of Lords all together?

I think they miss a crucial point here. An elected House of Lords would not have to be made up with party-political candidates… the electorate would not even necessarily have to be the public. I think the key argument for an elected House of Lords is that being a peer does not guarantee lifetime membership. The specifics are something else entirely.

An idea I have just had, so feel free to knock it, would be that members of the Lords could be ‘banned’ from having an affiliation with any political party – much in the way that civil servants (as far as I understand it) are. If people elected to the Lords were individuals who had not affiliation to a political party (and perhaps hadn’t ever had such an affiliation) this would in some way avoid political squabbles etc. It might even be possible to introduce a three-year peerage as part of the New Year’s honours or something… Just a un-thought-through plan… let me know what you think!

Onto my second extract:

Whilst welcoming the Draft Bill’s proposals to provide continued places for bishops of the established Church in a partly appointed House, the Archbishops ask that the appointments process also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths.

The Draft Bill and White Paper proposes a House of Lords of 300 members, with either 80% or 100% elected by proportional representation. If the reformed House were to retain an appointed element, there would be places for Church of England bishops, though reduced to 12 from their current 26. Bishops would not be allowed to remain in a 100% elected House under the Government’s plans.

[…]

The Archbishops welcome the proposals in the Draft Bill to continue with places for the Lords Spiritual, and that they should continue to be diocesan bishops of the Church of England: “If, as successive governments have accepted, there is a continuing benefit to this country in having an established Church, the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is one of the most important manifestations of that special relationship between Church and State.”

They also say: “We believe that there is a strong case for placing the Appointments Commission under a duty to ensure, among other things, the presence of those from across the United Kingdom who have or have had senior responsibility in churches and faiths other than the established Church.”

This is rather a long quotation for the short comment that I am going to make, but here we go:

  • Ultimately, who would make the decision about which groups constituted other faiths, and which were just random groups. And would this decision be based upon number of supposed adherents, length of time in the UK, or what? And would the number of adherents be based upon the people who actually turn up to meetings, the official figures, provided by the groups themselves, or by the vast inflation that comes from asking people the question “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” (Scottish 2011 Census)?
  • And the very fact that many people feel that there should be religious representation in politics raises many questions about why it is so common to invest religion with this special significance? If the idea is that thousands of people trust these leaders to do a good job and make moral decisions, then why is the argument not made that this should be extended to people who hold positions of trust in companies, charities, sports etc? And if the idea is that religious leaders are in some way fundamentally better at making moral decisions then… I don’t even need to start on all the objections to that!

My apologies for the uncharacteristic political rant.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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