Church of England bishops in the House of Lords are a historical anachronism that should be removed, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) chair, Tommy Shepherd, has told fellow MPs.
In a backbench Commons’ debate that has no legal consequence, the Scottish Nationalist and self-declared atheist said it was no longer appropriate for a country that "aspires to be open and democratic" to give advantages to a Church that isn’t backed by a "clear majority of citizens".
Condemning “an arrangement made in pre-democratic, feudal times, under which the Church of England is, at the heart of our constitution, guaranteed automatic representation”, Mr Shepherd said, “What we are concerned about here is the automatic right of one Church—one institution—to a privileged position …. at the heart of power”.
“In effect, one Church—the Church of England—has 26 paid professional advocates, right at the heart of the constitutional arrangements of this country”, he continued, “who are there to protect and advance the interests of that institution. That gives the Church of England an unfair advantage in this democratic system.”
The APPHG comprises more than 150 members of both Houses and has representatives from all the main political parties in it. Its vice-chair, Aaron Bell MP, a Conservative, said that it wasn’t the principle of religious leaders being in the Lords that was of concern, as several were in the Lords through the appointments process.
“If we are to continue to have an appointed Lords—opinions differ in this place on that—people in the Church of England could be appointed to the Lords in the same way. It just should not happen as of right”, he argued.
Rejecting the arguments, Second Church Estates Commissioner and Conservative MP Andrew Selous told MPs that bishops make up just three per cent of the House of Lords, with 26 entitled to sit in the upper chamber, and that "it is usual for just one or two to vote".
“I am told that a large number would be four or five, and six would be right at the top of the scale”, he stated, arguing that they rarely swung a decision when peers cast their votes.
“They play a spiritual role, and they say Prayers like our Chaplain does in the House of Commons.”, he argued. “I counter the notion that is put about sometimes that faith is dying; I think that is a myth, and it is unhelpful for the positive development of a modern society”.
His intervention was supported by Labour MP, Neil Coyle, who criticised how bishops had been “targeted because of the denomination they represent”.
“I support reform of the House of Lords”, Coyle argued, “but just targeting bishops for removal would leave the House full of Tory donors and political patronage, and that is not a House I would be happy to see.”
Selous pointed out that other faiths have argued for the retention of bishops in the Lords and that the criticism was a veiled threat to the role of the Church in society.
“I suspect that the intention of some Members present would not be to stop with the bishops”, he claimed. “I think that some here would like to eradicate the whole footprint of the Church of England across their country”.
Responding to the debate for the government, Alex Burghart MP said that few people in Britain felt strongly about bishops in the Lords, given other priorities.
“So this issue is not something the Government will be engaging in—certainly not in this Parliament,” he said.