The Lords reform we really need

Julian Fellowes: all major religions should have a voice in the Upper House (AP)

Is it time to ditch the 26 Anglican bishops, the Lords Spiritual, in the House of Lords? Or should their numbers just be reduced and replaced by the heads of other faiths?

The tenacious hold of the Church of England shows no sign of weakening. Despite the need for the Upper House to reflect the nation’s religious diversity, there is not one other Christian denomination or other religion which automatically has seats in the Lords.

There are no priestly Catholic peers, no Scottish Presbyterian ministers, no Pentecostal ministers, no imams, no Hindu swamis, no bishops from Northern Ireland or Wales, only the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, not the current holder.

With the fanfare this past month of the return of the bones of Thomas Becket, 845 years since he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, it seems an appropriate time to look at the old conflict between the separation of church and state.

The number of Lords Spiritual has remained capped at 26 (around 3.5 per cent of the House of Lords’ membership) for nearly 170 years, the same as when the Bishopric of Manchester Act of 1847 was implemented. But a spokesman for the Church of England told me: “If the House of Lords were to agree to a substantial reduction in its size then we would expect those discussions to also include proposals for the bishops’ benches, in which we would want to play an active part.”

In other words, their acceptance of a reduction would be subject to a lessening of all members in the house. Julian Fellowes, a Catholic peer, commented: “It does seem strange that the Church of England is the only religion represented, although they would justify it by saying it is the only established church. In these days of ecumenical wisdom, I would have thought the Catholic head, the Jewish head and perhaps the Muslim head, if there is one, should automatically be included and the number of bishops reduced accordingly.

“Although, even speaking as a Catholic, I do not believe there is any obligation to provide equal representation. This is, after all, a Protestant country. The aim would simply be to make sure that each of the major religious groups could count on a voice.”

The criterion for choosing bishops to sit in the House of Lords is length of tenure, not suitability. Donning parliamentary robes of state is a reward for long service. While five – the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, along with the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester – are ex officio members, a further 21 bishops are not chosen, but qualify depending on how many years they have served. They must await the death or retirement (compulsory at 70) of an incumbent bishop to claim this honour. Women bishops, though, can jump the queue. The Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 gives them priority for the next decade.

The Church of England is also represented in the House of Commons. Here the Second Church Estates Commissioner guides church legislation and the parliamentary ecclesiastical committee scrutinises any Church of England legislation before it is sent for approval by both Houses of Parliament.

Regardless of the changing face of faith in Britain, the monopoly of the Church of England in Parliament’s upper chamber is seldom queried, regardless of the rise in citizens with no religion and the decline in the numbers kneeling on pews on Sundays. Surveys about church attendance differ, but some report that more people attend Mass every Sunday than worship with the Church of England.

But without taking sides in any arguments about whether spiritual men should have material powers, religion no longer plays the dominant role it did in the past. Just look at weddings. More than 70 per cent in England and Wales are now civil ceremonies. The figure is similar for those being cremated after death, not buried. For many, football managers, media personalities or Catholic bishops would be more representative than the Lords Spiritual.

Yet several people I spoke to were hostile to the idea of denting the powers of the bishops. Another peer said: “We don’t want to be a secular society. However, there should also be other religions on the benches.” Others, too, liked the tradition of their continuity in Parliament since its beginnings in the 13th century.

Two questions must be asked. First, will Britain remain as the only democracy in the Western world giving religious representatives the right to vote on legislation? Second, are the bishops’ voting powers in the Upper House an anomaly?