Author’s Note: while there are a myriad of problems with the House of Lords, this article will just deal with the problems with the Lords Spiritual, not Temporal.
Earlier this week, the Church of England appointed its very first Bishop, Libby Lane. On Thursday, Constitution Minister Sam Gymiah introduced legislation for a ‘fast-track’ system to allow women bishops seats in the House of Lords quicker- presumably as a justifiable ‘catch-up’. Yet, such a minor step ‘forward’ misses the problem with the Bishops’ seats.
The House of Lords is composed of Lords Spiritual and Temporal; the former are religious representatives, and the latter are the vestiges of the aristocracy and a growing number of technocrat ‘crossbenchers’. The Lords Spiritual are now a tiny minority, a mere 26 of the 800 members. They are Bishops of the Church of England, decided based in part on office – the 5 occupants of the ‘Great Sees’ of York, Canterbury, London, Durham and Winchester – and the remaining 21 are based on seniority. The government’s proposal was to allow the Bishops to be based on other factors besides seniority, so as to take into account 1000 years of blatant sexism, perhaps.
The proposal is based on good intentions, but is merely a shuffle forward, continuing to step clear from the cliff edge of reform. There is a single, reasonably valid justification for the current 26 members: The Monarch of the United Kingdom is also the Head of the Church of England, and as such her 26 ‘most important’ members are her representatives in the Lords – it is not a coincidence that they sit closest to the Throne in the Lords.
As a country of tradition, and one that still considers itself, at least nominally, as religious, this is not a bad justification. But it is one that shirks the realities of the modern democratic country we are, and is the second most glaring of problems with the Lords (the most glaring is, of course, the 92 members who are hereditary members).
The reality of the country is one of secularism and plurality- we have an increasing amount of people who are no longer as religious as their forefathers, and an equally important body of religious people who are not represented. Possibly most conspicuous is the key characteristic that the Bishops share, being Church of England Bishops. At a time when devolution is a ‘hot topic’, and there is a general concern of prioritising certain areas of the UK (consider the rage against +the ‘English’ politicians during the Scottish referendum), the perception of bias is obvious.
The best solution, oft mooted (even by Bishops), is broader representation. Represent the other major religions present in the UK – the other branches of Christianity for a start, but Judaism, Islam and Hinduism (at least) easily have enough supporters that they’d be well represented. There were talks of a constitutional convention forming for the Chief Rabbi after Thatcher’s close relationship with Immanuel Jakobovits, but this hasn’t been followed consistently. Though it has been suggested that in modern times the Bishops represent ‘faith generally’ rather than specifically Church of England, they lack the ability to bring the precise viewpoints of other religions across.
Of course, one must ask the question whether any religion should be represented – should Richard Dawkins be there, representing the atheists in turn? The obvious answer is that religion still has a significant impact on the day-to-day living, more so than perhaps any other cultural or social activity. While the Head of State continues to also be the head of Church (a rare anomaly shared with The Vatican and Iran), there is a constitutionally valid reason to have a religious element to the House of Lords.
But allowing women Bishops a fast track role is a more tactical move than any real attempt at reform. It allows the Conservatives to highlight their ‘socially progressive’ aspects (particularly attractive to centrists, see also the Gay Marriage reforms). But it also avoids deep reform. It’s a can-kicking exercise, and one in a long line of can-kickers. The Lords Spiritual perform an important role, as religious advisers on behalf of the Crown. But in today’s Britain, they’re out of touch and out of date.
By Alex Diggens, Junior Writer for Daily Political View