Bishops have no place in Parliament

Podium: From an address to the Royal Commission by the general secretary of the National Secular Society
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The Independent Culture
THE NATIONAL Secular Society has been opposing religious privilege for 130 years. The most glaring example of this privilege today is that of the 26 Church of England bishops who have the right to sit in the House of Lords.

Britain is the only Western democracy to have religious representatives in its Parliament, as of right. Yet the Government wants not only to retain these 26 bishops, but to compound the inequity by introducing religious representatives of other denominations and faiths. It is undemocratic for these representatives to make laws binding on a population that largely considers religion to be irrelevant. The number of non-religious people in the UK is growing. Their franchise is further eroded by every extra religious representative who is appointed.

Even if many more people attended church, there would still be no justification for either Anglican or Catholic bishops in the Chamber. They are remote, and unrepresentative of their flock; they are middle-class and middle- aged, and nearly all of them are white.

They are all male, unlike their congregations who are predominantly female. Yet it is these very women who would be most affected by the bishops' often dogmatic stances. This particularly applies to Catholic bishops on such issues as reproductive rights.

Significantly, the Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet opposes Catholic bishops taking up seats in the Second Chamber. It acknowledges that any Catholic bishops would not even represent the opinions of British Catholics, but rather would represent the Holy See. Does the Commission want Rome to nominate members of our Parliament?

Anglican and Catholic bishops have manifestly lost any ability to provide moral leadership to the nation. Neither do they, nor other religious representatives, have special moral insights that would be denied to other members of the new chamber. On the contrary, the religious representatives would represent morally absolutist views, out of line with the country as a whole, and sometimes even with their own members. The Vatican, for example, has just attempted to stop women who were raped in Kosovo from being given the morning-after pill. These women are not even Catholics.

We are worried about religious representatives' attitudes to human rights, when even Anglican bishops voted last year for religion to be exempted from the terms of the Human Rights Act. This was self-serving. But, far worse, the bishops seem unable to grasp the concept of universal human rights. An Anglican bishop told me on Radio 4 in May that "We're very committed to human rights, but not where that trespasses on religious rights".

If religious representatives were banished from the Second Chamber, it would not mean that religion would no longer be represented there. Even without them, the new chamber would comprise those of all faiths and none, in approximate proportion to the population. Many of the existing temporal peers identify themselves as acting from religious motives, and those who profess no religion should not be regarded as any less capable of making good moral and ethical judgements - the Bishop of Oxford, one of the Commissioners, has acknowledged that.

A major practical problem is that of numbers. We believe it will prove impossible to extend representation without the new chamber being overwhelmed by religious appointees. The major reason for this is the C of E's intransigence in the face of calls to concede any of its 26 seats. The English Catholic bishops have called for more than a token presence and could (on the basis of their higher church attendance) claim unfairness unless they are given even more seats than the C of E. So, already, we are up to more than 50 seats. Then there are the other denominations, and other faiths. How many representatives will the three major Jewish sects demand, or the larger Muslim community, with its Shi'ite and Sunni sects? No matter how many seats are offered, it will never be enough.

Those left out, or those who feel they have insufficient seats, will claim discrimination - and perhaps racism. Were the extension of representation to be the failure we predict, correcting it would be a major constitutional problem.

There is only one solution that overcomes all the concerns I have catalogued. The solution we invite the Commission to propose is an entirely secular chamber. Having such a chamber would remove a democratic anomaly and demonstrate that Britain really is prepared to let go of its feudal past, and to modernise its Parliament.