Bishops’ bench “gives democracy a bad name”, MPs hear

Posted: Thu, 6th Jul 2023

Bishops’ bench “gives democracy a bad name”, MPs hear

Bishops in the House of Lords give "democracy and bad name", MPs have been told in a debate today.

Scottish National Party MP Tommy Sheppard, who brought the debate forward on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, argued for an end to the "guaranteed and automatic" appointment of Church of England bishops to the 'bishops' bench' in the House of Lords.

The Westminster Hall debate followed recent lobbying from the National Secular Society. The NSS briefed all MPs ahead of the debate.

Two Church of England archbishops and 24 bishops are automatically given guaranteed seats in the upper house.

"Time is right for a review"

Sheppard said there are only two national state legislatures where clerics are automatically guaranteed a place: Iran and UK.

He asked MPs whether they thought the pre-feudal, pre-democracy arrangement of bishops in the Lords is still appropriate in the 21st century in "a country which aspires to be open and democratic", and where most people don't belong to the CofE.

He quoted figures from the British Social Attitudes survey which found 52% of the population are nonreligious and only 12% are Anglican, in addition to the Church's own findings that just 1% of people in England regularly attend Sunday services. But even excluding the bishops, 60% of members of the House of Lords identify as Christian.

He reminded MPs that the bishops' bench is not a mere "ceremonial" function, but that the bishops have "real, effective, political power", with their votes being decisive on many occasions. He noted that they even occupy a privileged place within parliament itself, with protocol dictating that other members of the house give way to bishops during debates.

Sheppard said their influence is "socially conservative" on issues such as same-sex marriage and assisted dying, and "puts the legislature at odds with the public".

He added that the bishops have an inherent conflict of interest, as they are there to "protect and advance" the Church of England, giving it an "unfair advantage".

In answer to questions regarding wider reforms to the House of Lords, Sheppard said the bishops' bench "is a good place to start" as it is not elected and not subject to the same scrutiny as other appointments.

He said the bishops' bench "gives democracy a bad name" and "doesn't do the Church any favours either". He concluded that the "time is right for a review" of the arrangement.

Other SNPs raised concerns about the bishops voting on issues only affecting Scotland, despite the Church being established in England alone.

Responding on behalf of the government, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office Alex Burghart MP dismissed the concerns and said the government would not be engaging on the issue.

The bishops' bench is consistently unpopular with the public. A survey last year found over 60% of UK adults think bishops should have no place in parliament. In February writer and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig launched a petition to remove the bishops from the House of Lords, which received nearly 164,000 signatures.

In March the Commission on Political Power said the bishops are an "anomalous" presence in the House of Lords and recommended their removal in a reformed second chamber.

NSS: bishops' bench "an affront to democracy"

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans, who attended the debate, said: "Today's debate has brought much needed parliamentary scrutiny to the bishops' bench.

"The positively medieval privilege of ex officio seats for 26 Anglican bishops sits in stark contrast to the reality of 21st century Britain where Christianity is no longer a majority religion.

"Ending the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords is an important and necessary step towards creating a more modern, open and equitable parliament.

"The whole concept of clerics in the legislature as of right is an affront to democracy. Every other western democracy has realised this, it's time we did, too."

The debate was also welcomed by prominent Anglicans who oppose the bishops' bench. Simon Barrow, director the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, said: "If bishops or any other type of cleric wishes to be in a legislative body, they should get there by the same route as anyone else - that is, by election and popular franchise, not as a result of privileging a particular religious body.

"Having faith leaders from one denomination of one religion based in only one of the nations of the UK in an unelected second chamber is particularly inappropriate, unnecessary and anachronistic."

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Tags: Bishops