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Christian Tory “think-tank” proposes a “multi-faith House of Lords”

An influential Tory think-tank, The Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), was reported this week to be recommending that a reformed House of Lords should become “multi-faith”.

The CCF – which has previously been regarded extreme and fundamentalist - is now a major advisor to the Tory Party. It suggests that “faith leaders” from all religions and different denominations of Christianity be brought in to the Lords.

The CCF report says: “Christians need to enter the debate and make it clear that we value the presence of the Lords Spiritual, but this doesn’t have to mean unquestioning support for the status quo. There is a strong argument that our legislature would also benefit from the wisdom of leaders of Baptist, Catholic, Methodist and black-led congregations. A broad bench of Lords Spiritual drawn from a range of churches in Britain could provide a powerful vision of unity.”

The Prime Minister is said to favour the idea because he does not want the House of Lords to become a secular institution.

The issue is on the table because of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s proposals to reform the Upper Chamber. Mr Clegg’s bill is being negotiated with senior Conservative ministers and the Labour frontbench. It had been due to be unveiled last month, but has now been postponed for a few months.

The prospect of imams sitting alongside bishops is bound to provoke mixed reactions among Tories – and will expose the glaring flaws in this plan.

The Royal Commission which looked into reforming the House of Lords ten years ago proposed that the number of Anglican bishops be reduced from 26 to 16. In response, Iain McLean, Professor of Politics, Oxford University said: “If the Church of England is assigned 16 representatives (whether by ex officio bishops or otherwise), then a total of 77 senators will be needed to represent all faith communities. Many of them will have to be female, whatever the wishes of the faith community in question, to satisfy the gender requirement.”

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, said: “As I told the Commission then, Mr Clegg in recent months, and at every appropriate opportunity in the intervening years, a multi-faith House of Lords is worst possible solution. The Upper House is already packed with religious people and the prospect of bringing in hundreds more is a recipe for conflict and endless religious wrangling. I thought the idea was to reduce the numbers, not increase them.”

Mr Wood said that it would not be possible to have representatives from every religion, sect and denomination in the Lords without making the numbers of so-called “Lords Spiritual” unwieldy.

“Who is to decide which religions have a legitimate entitlement in the House of Lords? Why would a Moonie or a Scientology leader be less worthy of a seat than a Muslim or Jewish one? And if the Sunnis have a representative, the Shias would want one and if the Orthodox Jews have a representative, then so should the liberal Jews.”

Religious interests are already well represented in the House of Lords, partly because of the high average age of peers. As well as Protestants, there are Catholic, Muslim and Jewish peers, including the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, who is Muslim. There are also ex-bishops who are peers.

One senior Tory was quoted in the press this week as saying: “It is inconceivable that we continue with a faith element to the Lords without Catholic bishops being represented. It is also high time black Pentecostal leaders were better represented. As such we are going to have to consider whether other faiths are represented as well.”

One possible obstacle to this plan is the fact that Canon law 285.3 forbids Catholic clerics from assuming “public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power”.

For a different take on this, see Archbishop Cranmer’s blog