Can Bishops checkmate the “King of the World?”

Is it possible to lobby a Lord? Brian McHenry and Charlotte Mbali asked this question when the Agriculture Bill was coming up to its third reading in the House of Lords.

Lords, it is said, are there in their own right, not as representatives of constituents. Some do not even have a parliamentary address. Scanning through the helpful search facility on the Parliament site, 92 are hereditary peers (down from 650 before the 1999 reforms). The rest are either life peers belonging to a political party (264 Conservative, 181 Labour, 88 LibDem, 13 Other parties), Crossbenchers (185), non-affiliated (57) – and 26 Bishops.

So those who had connections with lords were exhorted to communicate with them about the amendments to the Agriculture Bill, amendments to retain domestic standards in any future treaties, and to strengthen scrutiny of them. Noting that one of these amendments was in the name of the Bishop of St. Albans prompted us to scrutinize further the role of these Lords Spiritual in parliamentary politics.

History of bishops in the Lords

There have been bishops in the Lords since the Middle Ages, when they sat in the House with the abbots of the important monasteries. Abbots were removed at the Reformation, and there have been more recent attempts (2015) to remove bishops too – or at least reduce them to 12 members. 

A humanist view, as expressed in 2007 by Hannah Stinson, CEO, the Humanist Society is that “The unacceptable fact is that the UK is the only Western democracy to give religious representatives the automatic right to sit in the legislature. Modern Britain is a society with a great diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs and continuing to privilege one denomination in this way is preposterous”.

Separation of church and state

In other European countries there has to be a clear separation of church and state. Roman Catholic priests hold their primary allegiance to the Church and not to any secular government. There was enthusiasm some years ago for a life peerage for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. The Cardinal would have been happy to accept the peerage, but the Vatican thought otherwise. However, some leaders of other denominations and faiths, such as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, have become lords.

Apart from the weight of tradition, what can be said in its favour of retaining bishops in Parliament?

The bishops are the only members of the Lords who, in a sense, have constituencies, which are their dioceses. They have the support of research staff at the Church of England’s national headquarters. The bishops have specialist briefs so, for example, a bishop is the lead bishop on policy for prisons.

There is always at least one bishop in the House.  This is because they lead the prayers at the beginning of sessions, and they stay on for the debates. Bishops take part in debates on many areas of policy and legislation. Readers of Bylines will have applauded the forthright views of the bishops on the recent Internal Markets Bill.

Violation of international law

The Archbishop of Canterbury joined with other eminent leaders in publishing in the media a letter deploring the violation of international law. In such an action, the leading bishops, often alongside other faith leaders, are assuming a role as “the conscience of the nation” above the sway of temporal politics.

Those working with Save British Farming welcomed the support of bishops in the Lords on progressive amendments to the recent Agriculture Bill, to guard against the importation of low-quality food. These examples show that it is wrong to suggest that the bishops show only concern for the Church of England’s own interests, in church law and its schools.

Some of the bishops had secular jobs before ordination and bring that experience to bear in their membership of the Lords. For example, the Bishop of London was the Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health, and the Bishop of Leeds once worked at GCHQ.

The bishops in the Lords now include women. The Bishop of London is a woman. At present every woman appointed as a bishop is automatically appointed as a ‘Lord Spiritual’, regardless of seniority, to balance out the representation of female Bishops in the House. It would be wrong to caricature the bishops as a group of reactionary middle-aged men!

However, notwithstanding all the arguments above, here are several questions to ponder:

  • Why should bishops from one church in one country of the UK have seats in the Lords?
  • Why should the bishops always lead the prayers? Might not the prayers be led by representatives of other churches or of other faiths?
  • Might not membership of the Lords make bishops cosy with the establishment and so blunt their prophetic voice?
  • Is there not an opportunity cost in the bishops spending time in Westminster rather than in their dioceses?
  • Would not bishops still be able to lobby the Government on matters of concern to the church, without their seats in the Lords?
  • What about the representation of other faith communities? Is an occasional life peerage, such as that awarded to the late Lord Sacks, the former chief rabbi, enough?
  • Why should faith communities have representation in the Lords anyway?

Role of a second chamber

Of course, there is the much wider question of the make-up and role of a second House in the UK Parliament, a debate which has raged on intermittently since the Budget crisis before the First World War. Probably nothing will change until there is a pressing political reason to change the Lords.   Meanwhile, it was useful when lobbying a lord over the Agriculture Bill to at least identify a group of lords with known addresses, namely the diocesan offices of the Bishops.

Those of us who dream of the UK returning to membership of the EU may well also dream of a country whose constitution smacks less of Ruritania but more of a modern European state. As Shakespeare might have said:

Hereafter, in a better world than this,
I shall desire a modern constitution.

  • Brian McHenry is a former Government lawyer, General Synod member and Vicar. He now lives in Canterbury.
  • Charlotte Mbali, living in Ashford, worked with Save British Farming to “lobby a lord”, along with Rev Nico Kerr of Gillingham who wrote to the Bishops.