By Pam Giddy
26 Bishops sit in the House of Lords as of right. They’ve been there since the time of Henry VIII and show very little sign of moving – a constitutional set-up that leaves us in the inglorious company of Iran, and very few others. This despite the fact that most major polls since the 1970s find the public in favour of democratising the upper chamber, a preference now expressed as a clear and unequivocal demand with a fully elected second chamber third out of 100,000 votes in Power2010‘s process to find the people’s priorities for reform.
Faith does have an important role in public life, not as some “lone voice for values” in a parliament of realpolitik – though undoubtedly the last few years of a stridently neo-liberal cultural, economic and political development have left the public realm a more nihilistic landscape – but as one of many voices, one of many diverse ethical perspectives on the fundamental questions of how we should live together. One need only look at the great work of thousands of churches in supporting those seeking sanctuary and rendered destitute by government policy, or in campaigning to end the detention of children, to see an important contribution.
Yet governing by right is diametrically opposed to this view of the role and mission of the established church, and reveals the “Lords Spiritual” as victims of the same base and immoral impulses of other powerful organisations – to serve their immediate interests and entrench their control. As Jon Bartley from Ekklesia puts it: “do as I say, not as I do” is a far cry removed from “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”.
Perhaps the Bishops do feel shame at such a course of action. They choose to have their say on only 3-5% of votes moving through the House of Lords – a figure well below the average for other Lords at about 25%. Likewise, even on matters deemed of Church interest even where the Bishop’s vote has been decisive – as it was disastrously to extend exemptions on the Equalities Bill so they can continue deeply discriminatory employment practices – they almost never vote in blocks greater than 8. Though this “self restraint” is to be welcomed, given each vote they cast is in itself undemocratic, what does it say? That they recognise the untenability of their positions politically and perhaps ethically? If so then all that is lacking is the courage to leave for good.
The Bishops in the Lords are a symbol of just how antiquated and outdated our constitution is, with its deference to the vested interests of privileged groups dressed up as “tradition” and charming eccentricity. But what worked for Henry VIII, just won’t wash in 21st century Britian: it’s time to call them out.
Today, Power2010 has launched a “Speak Out” action – the first ever directed at the bishops, calling on them to engage positively with democratic renewal and agree to a set of principles for reform of the second chamber that both Christian and non-Christian democrats can support.
Add your voice to the 12,000 messages already sent to the bishops in the first few hours of action – with enough of us making noise we’ll begin to truly crack open the debate.