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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Why Is The Government Scared Of Sacking The Bishops?

By not completely abolishing the Bench of Bishops in the House of Lords, the Government is missing a perfect opportunity to bring Britain’s parliament into line with the rest of the Western world, says the National Secular Society. The latest proposals for reforming the House of Lords include reducing the number of Church of England Bishops from 26 to 19, and then to introduce leaders from other “faith groups” through the selection committee.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “No other Western democracy any longer gives ex officio religious representation in their parliaments. The original justification for the Bishops’ Bench was the vast lands the Church used to own. Why is the Government — or should we say Mr Blair — so scared of also making a leap into the modern world and abolishing this undemocratic and archaic remnant, the Bishop’s Bench?

“Paradoxically, the reduction in the number of bishops would actually lead to an increase in the Church of England’s power in the Lords as many of the new representatives would in effect be full time legislators. Even without the bishops, the House of Lords is much more religious than the country it purports to represent. This is partly because peers are on average much older than the population and also because many peers have been ennobled as current or former clerics. So, any specifically religious representation is tantamount to double representation for religion. The retention of the Bishops Bench is also unpopular, according to a number of key surveys.

“There is no justification for the bishops. The bishops are all men, middle class and mainly white, and only come from English dioceses or archdioceses. The Church shows repeatedly how out of touch it is with the population, and often its own congregants, as it did recently over its opposition to the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Church attendance has been in decline for the last six decades to the point that 98% of the population are not in a CofE pew on an average Sunday. It is an insult to ‘temporal’ peers to suggest they cannot deal adequately with moral or ethical matters without the bishop’s guidance.

“The Government’s proposal to add yet more religious representation is the least democratic and most misguided of all courses of action. This will make the UK even less like other Western democracies, but closer to theocracies such as those in the Muslim world. The minority faith clerics, again all men, are even less representative of the population than the Anglicans. Appointing yet more clerics will make the Lords even more unrepresentative of the country.

“Such appointments will also be divisive. There will be no end to the rivalry to get additional representation for rival sects such as Sunni and Shia, Orthodox and Reform, and each will vie with the other to be the most reactionary. If the proposed changes are implemented, passing progressive Human Rights legislation like the Sexual Orientation Regulations will be much more difficult in future.

“The Government should bite the bullet and make the second chamber a secular institution, where religious representatives do not get privileged seats, they compete on the same basis as everyone else – and are only appointed because they have a worthwhile contribution to make to the process of making legislation.”


Published Mon, 05 Feb 2007