The Lords Spiritual have cleverly hung onto House of Lords seats. But their 1909 moment has comeby Iain McLean / March 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
In 1909, parliament contained 26 Church of England bishops. It still does. So what is the secret to the longevity of our “Lords Spiritual”? Hundreds of years ago, before the Reformation, their predecessors muscled into England’s legislature through a brutal combination of temporal and spiritual power: the church was among the great landowners—and usefully it had the power to send believers to hell.
The nationalisation of the Church of England in 1534 removed the first prop, but not the second: the church, for instance, still controlled things like marriage and schooling. And although the Church of England was disestablished in Ireland in 1869, and never established in Scotland, the bishops continued to make law there too. Even when the Lords finally overstepped the mark in 1909—voting to reject the “people’s budget” of Lloyd George, and in turn had their powers trimmed in 1911—the bishops survived.
Today, these spiritual peers invoke another clever justification for their “day jobs,” the Church of England’s website says they “provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the upper house and are a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.” This new line was first pioneered ten years ago, to persuade a commission run by Lord Wakeham (on the future of the Lords) that not only were the Lords Spiritual a force for tolerance and diversity today, but that they always had been.
You don’t need to look too closely to see that the bishops’ newly discovered tolerance doesn’t go back far. Take the 1912-14 Welsh disestablishment and Irish home rule bills. These were demanded by almost all the elected MPs from each country, and yet these most tolerant and diverse of Lords voted against them, almost to a man. The Church of England leadership also opposed the abolition of capital punishment until 1961. Over the centuries, there have been many religious voices calling for tolerance, notably the Quakers. But the bishops did not think to adopt this role until they fell out with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and needed to find support in more liberal circles.
Today, this supposedly tolerant attitude looks even less credible, as their Lordships’ discussions over 2010’s equality bill shows. On 25th January, eight bishops turned out to defeat the government on the issue of how broadly religious bodies are allowed to discriminate in employment against gay or female candidates. The government wanted the right to discriminate to be kept narrowly, for the purposes of religion itself. The bishops wished to keep the exemption undefined. One of the votes to defeat the government was carried by a majority of only five; therefore, for once, the bishops were decisive. Without them the government would have won; with the election imminent, it has now given up—putting parliament and European anti-discrimination law on a collision course.
Spiritual independence from some secular law isn’t outrageous in itself, indeed it may even be essential for religious organisations. Yet during the same equality bill debate, Lord Alli proposed another amendment on behalf of the Quakers, liberal Judaism, and the Unitarians—all of who had asked him to table it. At present it is illegal to hold a civil partnership on religious premises. Alli wanted to end this ban. Yet, fired by their long-held passion for diversity, two of the Lords Spiritual (the bishops of Winchester and Chichester), fought Alli’s plans—on the grounds that it would put unacceptable pressure on the Church of England to do the same. But hang on—either you believe in spiritual autonomy or you don’t. If you do, you have to believe that Quakers and Jews are entitled to it, just as Anglicans or Catholics are.
Despite its powerful opposition, the Alli amendment got through. Even so, it isn’t just that these Lords show selective logic in their argument. Like their pre-Reformation predecessors, they wield great temporal influence—this time through the press. Since the vote, the Bishop of Winchester, a social conservative, has been briefing that (under Lord Alli’s plans) Anglican vicars could be sued for refusing to conduct civil partnerships. The Telegraph and Times swallowed his line uncritically, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
In 1976, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan announced a constitutional settlement on bishops in the Lords, with all-party support, justifying it by saying “the Sovereign must be able to look for advice” from them, especially on appointments. It was a neatly circular logic: the bishops are in the Lords because the Sovereign needs advice on whom to appoint among the Lords Spiritual. But Gordon Brown broke that circle in 2007, effectively but quietly disestablishing the Church of England by announcing that he was withdrawing from advising the monarch on the appointment of bishops. That is now for the Church of England and nobody else. Given this, the only prop remaining is “tolerance and diversity.” Here it would be practically impossible for all faiths to be proportionately represented in the Lords, so the bishops’ claim in turn rests on their ability to represent all people of faith. During 2010, they have shown they do not. Following its retreat from the equality bill, the government is pondering its next steps. But I believe recent events mark a fundamental constitutional moment: when the last respectable argument for keeping bishops in the Lords disappeared. They should go.