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…