Bishops, know your place: it’s not in parliament
Posted: Fri, 6th Oct 2023 by Alejandro Sanchez
It was with great lamentation and gnashing of teeth that members of the Church of England reacted to news this week that the archbishop of Canterbury's request for a meeting with the Home Secretary was refused.
An incandescent Dominic Grieve took to the airwaves of Radio 4 to denounce Suella Braverman as "extraordinarily rude" for not acceding to meet the archbishop to discuss the government's immigration bill. The former attorney general, himself an Anglican, superciliously opined that the archbishop comes "well ahead" of the Home Secretary in "the order of precedence in this country". Dripping with condescension, and arguably misogyny, he concluded Braverman should "know her place".
Readers will have their own opinions of the Home Secretary, but the nation's democratic representatives should not be expected to prostrate themselves before a cleric who sits ex officio in the Lords by virtue of Victorian statute.
The whole episode lays bare the Church's unabashed sense of entitlement: How dare we be denied the privileged political access we have always taken for granted? "There was shock internally" and it was "a big slap in the face", an unnamed former senior adviser to the Lords Spiritual noted dolefully. Those officials who did meet with the Home Office were made to feel like "lepers", he added with appropriately biblical melodrama.
Lambeth Palace, the office of the archbishop, was very straightforward: "In the past the Archbishop has met other Home Secretaries. It is not unusual."
Maybe not for Lambeth Palace, but the public will rightly question this level of influence given how wildly out of step the Church is with society on issues of fundamental importance, such as reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and assisted dying.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Church has reacted with such opprobrium. After all, bishops are used to VIP treatment in the Lords. By convention, other peers must give way when a Lord Spiritual rises to speak. And there is an unwritten expectation that letters sent by primates to ministers should be answered within two weeks. Constituents and civil society organisations can only dream of such a prompt response.
There are also those Anglicans, such as Conservative MP Chris Loder, who support the bishops' bench in principle, but wish they would pipe down when their message is politically inconvenient. This is to have your cake and eat it. Of course, when bishops are given automatic seats in the legislature, they will use them to politically pontificate and further their own ends. As Loder said, they act as "politicians that wear mitres".
But that's precisely because that is what they are legally empowered to do. There is no clause in the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 – the law which enshrines 26 seats by right for Anglican bishops – which precludes them from participating in the political cut and thrust of the Lords.
If, as he says, he truly believes that bishops should focus on "the cure of souls" rather than "the political issues of the day", there is one very simple solution: abolish their automatic seats and dispatch them back to their dioceses posthaste.
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