One of the Bills announced in the Queen's Speech for the parliamentary session that is to extend into the first year of the third millennium is the Bill to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. The need to abolish this obvious anachronism in any democratic constitution was accepted in the Parliament Act of 1911, but the 1914- 18 war halted further legislation. So it would seem that we are at last tidying up this anomaly. But we are doing far more than this. We are beginning a process of unravelling constitutional arrangements that have developed over a millennium through layers of piecemeal legislation. We have no written constitution; all is an interwoven fabric of custom, law and symbolism.
As Bishop of Durham I sat as a lord spiritual among the lords in Parliament. This required me to take an oath of loyalty to the Queen and her heirs and successors. The oath was a reminder that, in common with all British citizens, I am a subject of the Crown. This crown is worn by a monarch who has been anointed in a specifically Christian ceremony: the coronation. The duties and opportunities associated with British citizenship are thus based on assumptions shaped by the Christian faith during the second millennium of its life.
Modifications of these arrangements have been made to cope with the obvious fact that increasing numbers of UK citizens are not Christians - and do not wish to conform to customs that assume that, however nominally, they are. (There are affirmations instead of oaths, and so on.) But the framework, the symbols and the assumptions are clearly Christian. Constitutionally speaking, we are ruled through "the Crown in Parliament".
The coronation itself is a medieval Christian service at which the Archbishop of Canterbury, under the authority of God, confers on the chosen royal heir the right and authority to wear the crown after imposing oaths to govern justly and in accordance with the true (Protestant and Christian) religion. As a people, of course, we are not much bothered about all this - except as the provider of some television spectaculars and the source of dramatic royal soap operas. But whether we are of faith or no faith, and whatever our views about what it is to be a citizen, or what we can expect of politicians or of ourselves as citizens, we need to pay urgent attention to what happens next in constitutional matters.
The removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords is not just a piece of democratic tidying up. It is an initial step in the unravelling of the whole constitution of the United Kingdom, an unravelling which is being initiated in many other ways.
The elimination of hereditary peers from the second chamber brings the question of the composition of that chamber to the fore. That raises vital questions of how such a chamber should be reconstituted to provide a check to the government and executive operating through the first chamber.
Further, if hereditary peers are undemocratic, what is the standing of the lords spiritual drawn from the Church of England? In my view disestablishment is bound to happen. An established church is not fitting in our pluralistic and multicultural society, and it is most inappropriate for the mission of any church in the third millennium. Christian churches need to be free of this first-millennium Constantinian entanglement with the state - however right and useful that compromising association might once have been.
Then, if you abolish hereditary peers, what is to happen to a hereditary monarchy? If you remove a head of state, identified by long-standing tradition, who is distanced from ordinary political processes, where do you locate reserved powers to assist in checking the overweening power of elected governments, and who might be available to help in unprecedented circumstances of deadlock? It may well be, given our history and the widespread respect for the Queen, together with the need to negotiate far-reaching changes with maximum understanding and consent, that the focusing role and reserve powers of the constitution should continue, at least for the time being, to be located in the hereditary monarchy.
The question then arises of what should happen after the end of the reign of our present queen. Let me suggest that the next reign ought to be formally instituted not by a coronation but by an inauguration or installation. This would have to be a secular ceremony to which contributions were made from the traditions of all faiths. The Church of England might well be at the centre of any such ceremony, which would be an act of service to the country as a whole. Westminster Abbey or St Paul's might be suitable venues. But this step would require parliamentary legislation, and must therefore be considered as soon as possible.
Further, a negotiated ceremony of this sort - one that was both secularly agreed and had accepted religious contributions - could form a useful model of collaboration for moving from a state which is formally (but not realistically) Christian to a state which is overtly and with general agreement secular. In such a state public recognition might be given in various ways to the role and resources of religious faith - not least the Christian faith.
Numerous issues are facing us all. A Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly are to be elected on 6 May 1999. They are to have varying powers, but do we face this development with any plans of how we are to hold this all together? In particular, what about the "English"? On 1 April we English will acquire eight regions with development agencies overseen by regional chambers of appointed councillors and business people. Are these to be the seedbeds for elected regional assemblies with delegated powers? Will the regions, perhaps through their assemblies, be the constituencies for electing something like "senators" to a second chamber? (Such a second chamber, presumably, would also have senators from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and so become an important focus for maintaining a United Kingdom - if it continues to be a kingdom.) Or are bases for regional representation in England to be built up around elected mayors of regional cities, on the pattern of the elected Mayor of London (with a regional authority) who is scheduled to appear next year?
Whatever the precise answers, we are faced with the opportunity of a millennium. The constitution of the United Kingdom has developed without systematic revision or written deposit. The symbolism and legitimation of this constitution are formed by the Christian religion. The challenge is to construct feasible institutions rooted in some common understanding of citizenship. We have to work out practical and institutional expressions of our various national and regional identities which maintain positive inter-relationships and improve democratic accountability.
Then, being who I am, I must ask: what contribution ought the Church of England to be making to this discussion? The days when it was assumed that states exist under a sacred canopy within which religious authorities are responsible under God for legitimating power, morality and civil order have long passed. Nevertheless, we now know that, whatever our plurality of perspectives and religions, we all live in one globalised and limited world. The question posed to the Christian churches is how are we to recover and develop the Christian vision of a universal God with a universal purpose? From such a perspective we may make a creative contribution to the task of developing new, but open, institutions for the states, regions and nations that will have to co-operate in a world full of fresh challenges.
The Church of England accepts a responsibility to serve all the dwellers in a locality or nation. This should enable us to offer a unique contribution to reopening the Christian faith, in service and in hope, for the development of a sustainable and shareable future. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Church of England, along with other religious institutions and traditions, should not lapse into competing sects. At this juncture, to seek to preserve religious privileges or protect religious authority - demanding rights instead of offering service - will be to risk any relevance we might have to our neighbours in the 21st century. Can we in the Church of England muster the faith, the courage and the realism to grasp this opportunity of a millennium?Reuse content