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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Archbishop pleads for the retention of the bishops’ bench in Lords

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, this week appeared before the parliamentary committee looking into reform of the House of Lords arguing for the retention of the bishops’ bench.

Currently there are guaranteed places for 26 Church of England bishops in the House of Lords, including both Archbishops and the most senior diocesan bishops, but none for representatives of other religions. However under plans to cut the total number of peers and make the Upper House almost wholly elected, the number of bishops could be cut to 12.

Mr Williams said that he wanted the right to appoint women bishops once the General Synod had approved draft legislation to create them. This, he said, would “correct the gender imbalance”.

Critics say that this tokenism is an attempt to make the bishops bench seem more representative and in line with modern thinking.

Dr Williams told the committee that he agreed reform was “overdue” and that the Church would not resist moves to reduce proportionately the number of places on the bishops’ benches. He also said he was happy for other religious leaders to join the House of Lords but claimed there would be “extraordinary practical problems” in deciding who they should be.

The Archbishop was insistent that the bishops were not there to represent the Church, but rather to represent a “non-partisan, civic perspective”.

“The anomaly is very real but the question is whether the removal [of the bishops] would be for the benefit of the House or the nation at large.” He also said he believed there was no pressure among other religions for the Church of England to lose its privileged place in society through disestablishment; it all came from what he called “aggressive secularism”, which other groups would want to resist, even if they were previously wary of the power of the Anglican Church. He provided no evidence to support any of these contentions.

He then added: “Nobody is calling for a theocracy – nobody wants to turn the United Kingdom into Iran.”

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “The Archbishop says he doesn’t want the UK to become a theocracy like Iran– forgetting that Britainis the only country besides Iran that appoints clerics to its legislature by right. And packing the chamber with representatives of other religions would unbalance it even more and make it even less representative of a country that is rapidly abandoning religion.”

Mr Wood added: “These so-called ‘faith leaders’ often do not represent the people they claim to represent. Polls show time after time that the people in the pews are often completely at odds with the teachings of their birth religion. The Government should reform the House of Lords on the basis of evidence, not on the self-serving pleading of the Church of England.”

In a highly critical article in the New Statesman, Fraser Nelson says that the Church of England has “above all a sense of unshakable entitlement to its own historic privileges and a rat-like cunning in preserving them.”

Published Fri, 02 Dec 2011