We'll fight to keep our bishops in the Lords, says Church of England

Bishops Lords 001

The Church of England has said that it intends to fight hard to keep its bishops in a reformed House of Lords.

The statement came as Justice Secretary Jack Straw told an Unlock Democracy seminar that the exclusive presence of the CofE in Parliament was "anomalous". He said, "My own guess is the Church of England may come to a view [over the next ten years] that it is not appropriate for bishops to be in the legislative chamber."

The CofE replied that kicking the bishops out would be a "retrograde step".

Although Mr Straw refused to clearly state whether he believed the bishop's places in the House of Lords should be protected or not, he did talk about his hope for a wholly elected House of Lords.

But Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, countered by saying that the bishops' future in the Lords was "doomed". He said: "Their presence in the House of Lords is unsupportable in a country where less than half of the people do not belong to Christianity, far less, the Church of England (Office for National Statistics, Social Trends, No. 38, 2008 edition (pdf), table 13.18). The UK is the only Western democracy that has clerics in its parliament as of right. These clerics are all men, they are unrepresentative and, despite their claims, they have no special insight or universally accepted morality to bring to the debate. Indeed, the dogma the Church peddles on sexual matters is something which even its members find hard to accept and will very likely tear the Church apart. Such is the desperation of the Government to keep the bishops in the Lords it is suggesting they remain, but only in a non-voting capacity (a transparent sop, if ever there was one). Their danger is not in their votes, but the access and influence their unjustified presence in the Lords gives them."

However, the Church of England spokesman said: "The Church has been consistent in challenging the case for a wholly elected chamber and in arguing that if there is a move to a partly elected chamber, bishops should remain, albeit in reduced numbers if the size of the second chamber is substantially reduced."

The Church of England spokesman tried the usual spin on the role of the "Lords Spiritual", saying: "Bishops in the Lords help connect the second chamber with the people, parishes and regions of England, not just their own worshippers. In an age where the role of religion in shaping social and moral attitudes is increasingly recognised to be highly significant, the idea of shaping the second chamber on a purely secular model would be a retrograde step."

In a debate about Lords reform in 2007, John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, said: "We do not see ourselves as representatives, but as connectors with the people and the parishes of England. Ours is a sacred trust - to remind your Lordships' House of the common law of this nation, in which true religion, virtue, morals and law are always intermingled; they have never been separated."

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: "The motives, indeed the sanity, of anyone claiming that the modernisation of the House of Lords requires the retention of these relics of medieval times, unique in western democracies, requires the closest of examination. The Bishops are out of step with the wishes of the electorate, they are reactionary and undemocratic. Their self-serving statements about their 'right' to be in Parliament should be given short shrift by every democratic secularist, whether religious or not. The NSS will do its utmost to get out of our Parliament those there simply because of their ecclesiastical position."