HOLR: Bashing the Bishops

Jack’s arguments on House of Lords reform… Mmm… where to start.

Tell you what, lets get religion out of the way first and look at what Jack’s putting forward as arguments in favour of religious representation in the second chamber.

6.22 It is important that faith communities are represented in the House of Lords.

Ah, ‘faith communities’ eh? So right from the outset, we’re taking the line that religion and religious belief can be happily used to divide people up in nice, easily boxed, lumps of homogeneous interests; interests that require some form of ‘official’ representation that’s entirely separate and distinct from any representation that religious belief may get simply because individual members of the House espouse a particular personal faith.

So, what we’re about, then, is preserving the status quo.

The Church of England, as the established Church, enjoys a special status in social and political life in England and more widely around the United Kingdom. This has long been recognised even by people who are not themselves Anglicans.

Well yes, Jack. Quite.

Jack? Just exactly how are you using the word ‘recognised’ here?

Even as an atheist and a secularist I have to recognise that the Anglican Church enjoys as ‘special status’ in the social and political life of the United Kingdom. It would be absurd not to recognise that because that it exactly how things are.

The Church of England occupies a massively privileged position is society, one that currently affords it, amongst other things, a guaranteed twenty-six seats in the House of Lords, massive amounts of state funding for Church of England Schools, mandatory religious education and ‘broadly Christian’ acts of worship even in non-faith state schools and even a guaranteed amount of religious broadcast on Britain’s terrestrial television stations.

It would be stupid not to recognise the existence of all that – but whether I agree with any or all of that and whether I recognise that as having any substantive value is another matter entirely.

I can’t but feel that recognise is being used here in a deeply disingenuous manner is order to imply widespread acceptance of the privileges and status of the Church of England without actually allowing the matter of whether that status, and especially the privileges that go with it, are accepted to the test.

Lords Spiritual have sat in the Lords since its inception.

And so have a number of hereditary peers, what of it?

They are the only category of member whose term is limited to the holding of their office.

And that’s because their position in the legislature is directly attached to their religious office. Again we have deliberately disingenuous point being advanced as some sort of mitigation for the privileged status afforded to Anglican Bishops.

The correct manner in to view this is not in terms of the individual but the office – Dr Rowan Williams will, one day, cease to be a member of the House of Lords when he vacates his office as Archbishop of Canterbury… but the Archbishop of Canterbury will always be a member of the House of Lords, no matter who the incumbent is at any given time.

There have in the past been arguments about the disestablishment of the Church of England. There is little steam behind such arguments today, and, in any event, any profound change in the status of the Church must be in the first instance for the Church itself. It is therefore right for there to continue to be special representation of the Church of England in the reformed Lords.

No. No. No. No. No…

Is there really ‘little steam’ behind arguments for disestablishment today, Jack? Have you even bothered to ask?

Of course not.

There has been no public debate on the subject of disestablishment whatsoever, so one cannot assert that there is ‘little steam’ behind such arguments as the question hasn’t been asked. Jack seems to be having a bit of Lord Nelson moment – ‘I see no debate’ – and yet, after his interjection, last year, on the subject of the niqab, he cannot be unaware that there is a considerable, wide-ranging and ongoing public debate about the status and privileges afforded to religion and religious belief by the state.

The main problem here is that ‘disestablishment’ is being used as a canard. In broad historical terms arguments for disestablishment have always arisen in concert with arguments from republicanism and have, therefore, had a very narrow focus on the dual role of the reigning monarch as both Head of State and Head of the Church of England. The counter-argument has, therefore, always been limited to the suggestion that the two roles undertaken by the monarch are somehow indivisible and that disestablishment of the Church of England would, in some generally unspecified form, unduly and negatively impact on the position and status of the monarch as Head of State.

This is simply not true.

Disestablishment of the Church of England would have no constitutional impact on the position of the monarch as Head of State, it would merely enforce a separation of the two roles. Technically, a disestablished Church of England would not have to seek the assent of Parliament in order to remove the reigning monarch as Head of the Church, but such a decision would be entirely in the hands of the Church itself – it would have a free choice in the matter – but disestablishment, itself, would not automatically alter the position and status of the reigning monarch within the Church.

The real debate around disestablishment rests not on the dual role of the monarch but on the privileges and status that the Church of England enjoys by virtue of being the official state church, i.e. its guaranteed seats in the legislature, access to state funding for Church schools, etc… all things that are very much open to debate and that are, increasing, being openly questioned in the course of the public discourse surrounding the role of religious belief in society in general.

These could, and should be debated openly, especially at a time when reform of the House of Lords, and therefore the future status of Anglican Bishops in the legislature is under discussion, and yet it seems clearly that we are, as citizens, to be denied the right to participate in any such debate.

If that were not bad enough, Jack goes on to assert that ‘any profound change in the status of the Church must be in the first instance for the Church itself’. That is complete and utter nonsense, not to mention deeply undemocratic. If that the best argument that Jack Straw can put forward then he should, frankly, be ashamed of himself.

What Jack is stating here is nothing more than the view that the position and status of the Church of England is not a matter to be decided by Britain’s citizens, unless the Church of England, itself, wishes to make such a decision, which amounts to never, or at least not until turkeys start voting for Christmas.

Think about that for a moment. Out of a total electorate well in excess of 40 million adults, a grand total of 574 people – the members of the Church of England’s General Synod* – are the only people who Jack thinks should have any say whatsoever in the matter of whether the Church of England should be afforded guaranteed seats in legislature of the United Kingdom, unless they decide that they want to give everyone else a say in the matter. But then, should that be any surprise to us. After all out of that same total electorate, less than 1500 people – the combined memberships of the Houses of Common and Lords – are to be given any say at all in the matter of reform of the House of Lords.

It should also be noted that the General Synod is also the only body in the UK to have law-making powers delegated to it by Parliament. The General Synod can pass what are called Measures on any matter to do with the Church of England, which then become part of English law – these Measures do have to be agreed by Parliament, but only in so far as Parliament can vote to accept or reject them before the receive Royal Assent, but these MEasures cannot be amended by Parliament.

6.23 Whilst recognising the quality of work Lords Spiritual bring to the House, there remains a strong case for a more flexible approach which would allow the Church to determine, from among the Bishops, those who they consider would be able to make the best contribution, rather than appointment on seniority. Assuming the overall size of the House reduces, it would be difficult to justify retaining the current number of 26 Lords Spiritual.

Well, yes. Obviously.

Although, again the wording here is very interesting inasmuch as Jack refers to the quality of their contributions, which is hardly surprising as of the twenty-six Bishops in the current House of Lords, a mere three have voted in more more that 4% of the votes taken in the House over the last year and the ‘top performer’ – the Bishop of Chester – managed to get along to the House for only 12% of all votes taken.

Jack does offer up some quantitative figures later on in the White Paper:

For example, of the Lords Spiritual between April 2005 and March 2006, 11 attended more than 25 times (out of a possible total of 134). 12 attended fewer than 20 times. 42% of the total number of attendances was accounted for by just 5 of the Bishops and the top 16 Bishops accounted for 89% of total attendances.

But that’s not data, that’s a GCSE maths problem set by a drunken surrealist. The statistics given, in a passage that deals with the issue of reducing the total number of Bishops in the House, are presented in such a deliberately confusing manner as to make it impossible to come to clear view on either existing levels of attendance and how this might shape further thinking on the exact number of Bishops to be included in the reformed House.

On its own, that would sufficient to raise suspicions that something a little ‘iffy’ is going on here, even without taking into account the comments immediately preceding this ‘data’.

The Government has always recognised that the nature of diocesan Bishops’ work means that it is very difficult for many of them to attend the House of Lords with regularity and therefore that their overall representation needs to be higher than would otherwise be appropriate. However, a smaller number than 26 would still deliver this. Much of the work in the House is already done by a smaller core team of Bishops.

In short, whatever number is finally arrived at, it will almost certainly be more than can be reasonably justified by any rational measurement.

The importance of this is that the proposed shape of the reformed House with eventually come down to a maximum of 540 members of whom 20% (108) will be non-political appointees, i.e. cross-benchers. And one would presume that as the remaining 80% of members will be political (either by way of election or appointment in Jack’s model), it would seem that whatever the exact number of seats allocated to Bishops turns out to be, those seats will come from the non-political 20% and, crucially, will account for something more than a number that could reasonably be considered to be the Church’s ‘fair share’.

To put that in context, if we define the actual ‘constituency’ represented by Anglican Bishops in terms of regular church attendance (i.e. once a month or greater) then on the Church’s own figures, their constituency amounts to a little over 800,000 people across the whole of England – remember, neither the Church in Wales or the Presbytarian Church in Scotland is afforded seats in the House by right.

What we can conclude from this is that:

a) Whatever the allocation afforded to the Church of England eventually turns out to be, the Church will be disproportionate over represented in the reformed House.

b) This will operate to the detriment of the independent cross-bench contingent in the reformed chamber, which will have a disproportionate number of seats taken up by members whose attendance at the House can be, at best, described as ‘poor’.

And.

c) That Jack, and others, are fully aware of this and have drafted the White Paper in such a way as to obscure this from the public, deliberately, so as to ensure that this issue received little or no effective scrutiny.

And we’re not finished yet, by any means:

6.24 It is equally important that a reformed House of Lords reflects the wider religious make-up of the United Kingdom, though the formal nominated representation of particular faith groups may not be possible. As the Wakeham Commission pointed out “It is clearly not possible to find a way in which all other faith communities could be formally represented on any kind of ex-officio basis. None of them has a suitable representative body.

Well that’s not strictly true, for starters – it all depends on what you mean by ‘other faiths’. If, by ‘other faith’ you specifically mean ‘not Christianity’ then, yes, it may be difficult to identify specifically religious organisations who could provide ‘official representatives’ akin to those supplied by the Anglican Church.

If, however, you mean ‘not the Anglican Church’ then that’s not true. The Roman Catholic Church, which on regular attendance is actually slightly larger than the Anglican Church, has a perfectly well-established official church hierarchy that could easily supply ‘representatives’ of this kind, as do a number of other sizeable Christian denominations. It also rather presupposes that those faiths that lack this kind of official hierarchy would be incapable of arriving at some sort officially sanctioned representative by other means.

What is there, for example, to prevent an organisation like the Muslim Council of Britain organising its own internal election, from amongst the Mosques affiliated to it, in order to arrive at a representative sanction, if not by all Muslims, then by a significant majority. One can apply that argument to most, if not all, of the main non-Christian faiths, and yet that’s a possibility that neither Jack, nor Lord Wakeham, seems to have recognised.

Overall, the impression given is one of offering ‘faith communities’ representation, but only on the preferred terms of the government. i.e. the government wishes to choose who represents those communities on their behalf and not allow them a free choice of who, nominally, speaks for.

None of that, however, addresses the more fundamental question of whether ‘faith communities’ really need or merit official representation of this kind.

Why should the legislature include individuals who are specifically there to ‘represent’ so-called ‘faith communities’?

Why does religious belief require such representation?

Why is not enough that the House include individuals who, by dint of the personal beliefs, could be thought to be representative of the views of followers of different religious beliefs, as opposed to directly representing the beliefs themselves or, at the very least, the temporal hierarchies that have grown up around those beliefs?

And even if there are occasions on which one needs to get the ‘official line’ from a ‘faith community’, why does that necessitate official representation – there are many other ways of consulting and engaging with ‘faith communities’ and ensure that their expressed views are taken into account, ways that are not wholly reliant on having a designated individual to speak of their behalf.

For all that, Jack leaves his worst argument to last.

The Government will look carefully at how the views of those of faith and those of none can be represented in a reformed House of Lords. This will of course only be realistically possible if there is a significant appointed element in a reformed House.

Again, the argument is ambiguous and, I suspect, deliberately disingenuous inasmuch as he fails to qualify his reference to the necessity of a ‘significant appointed element’ in the reformed House.

Taken at face value, the statement is true – if one genuinely wishes to ensure that there is a broad spread of ‘religious’ opinion in the House then one must look to appointment to deliver that; such a thing cannot be guaranteed by the vagaries of the electoral system and the ‘good offices’ of political parties.

But which ‘significant appointed element’ is Jack referring to here, exactly?

Only the 20% designated for ‘independent’ members or does he intend this reference to interpreted more broadly as a justification for the additional 30% of members that the White Paper proposes should continue to be appointed to the House by way of direct political patronage?

Jack statement, here, leaves that question wide-open, and again I suspect deliberately so in order to try an conflate the strong arguments in favour an appointed ‘independent’ contingent in the reformed House with those, much weaker, arguments for the retention of political patronage.

There is one final point to be made here.

But for passages dealing with retired ‘Law Lords’* – or Justices of the Supreme Court as they will shortly be known – and ‘former public servants’**, ‘faith communities’ (and Anglican Bishops) are the only non political ‘interest group’ specifically referenced in the White Paper.

* To clarify this, the White Paper proposes that all Justices of the Supreme Court (i.e. Law Lords) should be offered a seat in the reformed House on their retirement from the judiciary, which on the face of it seems fairly reasonable. However, Straw also note that, presently, there are 19 such individuals (former Law Lords) in the House, all of whom sit as cross-benchers, which means another substantial ‘chunk’ of the maximum 108 ‘independent’ members will be taken up before we even get to the question of the House’s need for other forms of expertise.

* ‘Former public servants’ are discussed under argument for retaining Prime Ministerial appointments, and so fall within the proposals for 30% of the House to be made up of political appointees.
Which fair demands that we ask the question “why should so-called ‘faith communities’ be singled out in this manner as opposed to other nominal ‘interest communities’?

Why should we privilege religious belief over and above other common interests and the ‘communities’ that form around them?

I haven’t checked but I suspect that if we apply the same criteria on ‘regular attendance’ used by the Church of England then we’ll find that more people attend professional football matches in Britain on regular basis than attend Anglican Churches on the same basis, in which case why should we not guarantee the Football Association seats in the reformed House?

And what of the many other ‘communities’ one might reasonable define by way of their members holding a ‘common interest’, ‘communities’ that have an official ‘representative body. Could we not argue, for example, that business people form a ‘community’ and thereby grant seats by automatic right to the Confederation of British Industry.

What of medical professionals? Is the British Medical Association or the Royal College of Nurses (steady, Dr Crippen) or any one of a number of equally august fellowships that represent the profession, not equally deserving of our ‘recognition’ and have they not as much to contribute to civil society and to the legislature?

How about scientists? There is the Royal Society of London, one the most respected, if not the most respected scientific institution in the world, an organisation whose past presidents include Sir Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Sir Issac Newton, Sir Humphrey Davy, T H Huxley, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Ernest Rutherford. Can one really argue that we should privilege religion over an body that has provided the nation with such a line-up of intellectual giants?

Where is the argument that justifies the status and privileges afforded to religion in the legislature and yet, equally, justifies the denial of those same privileges to these and so many other ‘interest communities’?

Nowhere to be seen.

If I must sum up Straw’s arguments in this section in but a single word, that word can only be ‘slippery’ – the White Paper does nothing to advance any substantive or rational arguments in favour of either retaining Bishops in the reformed House or extending a similarly privileged position to other ‘faith communities’, rather it does all that it can to close off public debate on this issue even to the extent of invoking arguments that are clear, fundamentally and unacceptably undemocratic.

Sorry, Jack, but this a poor effort. A very poor effort, indeed.

One thought on “HOLR: Bashing the Bishops

  1. Wow, how many Jedi Lords does that make based on the last census? Sadly Discordian Agnostics were represented under “other”, so I can rule myself out.

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