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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Constitutional Reform: Undemocratic Church Privileges Retained And Further Concession Made To The Church Of England

The Government’s latest proposals on constitutional reform are missing a prime opportunity to modernize Britain’s democracy, said the National Secular Society.

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said: “The latest Green Paper The Governance of Britain[1] will permit the Church of England to retain its privileges as an established Church at the expense of other religions and those who have no religion. As other religions in this country become more assertive, they will eventually come to question why 26 Church of England Bishops have the right to sit in parliament, and why the Church of England enjoys special status above all other religions and denominations.” He said the continued presence of the Bishops in the House of Lords was “an affront to democracy. Britain is the only country in the democratic world that permits clergy to sit in its legislature as of right.

“This failure even to consider this issue is an early sign that under Gordon Brown the Government is as keen to retain religious privileges as his predecessor Tony Blair, who was dubbed the most religious Prime Minister since Gladstone,” said Mr Wood. “Not only has Gordon Brown failed to address the unjustified privilege of the Bishops’ Bench, the Government proposes relieving the Church of one of the few burdens it has under establishment, having the Prime Minister decide on senior appointments.

“While the National Secular Society acknowledges that it is inappropriate for the Government to be involved in ecclesiastical appointments, this burden for the Church should have only been given up as part of a wider negotiation starting the disestablishment process, perhaps as a quid pro quo for the removal of the Bishops’ Bench.

“In recent years the Government has indicated its willingness to embark on disestablishment at the Church’s behest, but their position appears to have now hardened against even this passive abnegation of its democratic responsibilities. The Governance of Britain states: ‘The Government reaffirms its commitment to the position of the Church of England by law established. … The Government greatly values the role played by the Church in national life’.

“We note that the two signatories of the Green Paper are committed Christians, one of whom is an Anglican: which is taking precedence, the Church or their duty to the electorate?

“The Council of Europe has recently recommended that all forms of Establishment should be dismantled in Europe, recognizing the injustice and potential for conflict that such arrangements can lead to in plural societies.[2] It also acknowledges that: ‘there are many members of the Church of England itself who would like it to be free of the obligation to minister to everyone, irrespective of their beliefs, and many outside the Church who, like the National Secular Society, believe that it is simply wrong in principle to give any special legal recognition to any form of religion’.


[1] The Governance of Britain Doc. CM7170, presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, July 2007.
[2] State, religion, secularity and human rights Council of Europe Doc. 11298 published 8 June 2007


Published Mon, 09 Jul 2007