The new Archbishop should stop this gesture politics


Frank Field
Thursday 09 May 2013 22:00 BST

It is about time the Church became serious about politics. The debacle over its opposition to the Government's welfare reform programme offers the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a God-given opportunity to totally reshape the role of bishops in the House of Lords.

A week before the House of Lords voted on key aspects of the Government's welfare cuts [in March], 43 bishops issued a statement to the effect that this was the most vicious attack on children since Herod slaughtered the innocent. The welfare cuts are serious in the impact they will have on the living standards of some families, but let's leave aside the judgment as to whether the cuts were almost of a criminal nature. What did the bishops do?

The bishops of the established Church have had, since time immemorial, places in the House of Lords, and currently hold 25. The two Archbishops, and the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, become members as soon as they are appointed to these senior posts. The other 20 places are filled by seniority. Of the bishops signing the letter attacking the Government, 16 had the power to help vote down the changes and so throw the Government's programme into further chaos.

Only 6 bishops turned up to make their protest real. There were four consecutive votes on the welfare cuts. Only 1 bishop voted in each. This turnout of bishops is the worst kind of gesture politics. The new Archbishop should put an end to such behaviour.

It may be that the Church of England now appoints bishops who feel they have nothing to say to the nation on the great ethical issues of the day. Some could quite legitimately believe that their time would be better spent in their dioceses. But it surely cannot be impossible for bishops, who sign protest letters, to so organise their diaries that they can turn up and put their votes where their mouths are.

The voting record of the bishops over the last decade suggests that there are places in the House of Lords which are simply wasted. In the last Parliament, for example, the Bishops voted in only 6 per cent of the divisions. How might the new Archbishop so reshape the role of bishops in the House of Lords so that their presence remains relevant into the future?

This bishops' attendance record calls for a new approach from the Church which matches its approach to Westminster politics to the time and talents it has amongst its senior clergy. Here I want to set out one such approach that could rescue the Church from its current embarrassment. It also begins a different process of constitutional reform following the failure of the recent proposals to elect the Upper House.

An objection to the places of the 25 Anglican bishops have in the Lords is that their membership is no longer representative of the country's religious sentiment. This approach might have been justified when there was no serious challenge to Anglican hegemony. It no longer is.

There is however one way forward that enables the Lords to become again representative of the moral aspirations of our nation. It can also simultaneously give a kick-start to the Lords reform that strengthens the great interests and groups that make up the Big Society.

Why doesn't the Archbishop introduce his own House of Lords Reform Bill? It would surrender most of the bishops' places that lie unused which should then be redistributed to the different denominations. This bill should give the Archbishop the power to appoint bishops and senior women to the places that would be designated to Anglicans.

Included in the redistribution of seats should be those groups who assert that they have no faith in a Godly presence, but have shown themselves to be concerned about the ethical standards by which individuals and groups live their lives. It would be up to those groups to elect their representatives. If they fail to do so they will find that the political tide runs strongly against them.

Such a move would set both the temper and basis for further reform. It would speak loudly on how voters regard representation as being a fundamental part of our democracy. It would also set in hand how the new House of Lords would be elected, but not on absurd party lines.

The Electoral Commission should be charged with the role of beginning to set out in public debate what main groups make up the great interests in our country, and how they are represented in the House of Lords. Many of the interests who should be awarded seats are pretty obvious: trade unions and employers, the universities, the great arts and cultural institution, our armed forces, the law, the different media organisations, and women and children's organisations. Some of these bodies, particularly those for children, would need to come together to decide their form of representation. But most of these bodies already elect their own leaders and generally the Electoral Commission should merely validate this process.

The search should also be on for the new interests that are trying to emerge and who should have a voice in the development of our nation.

Here then is the opportunity for the new Archbishop to seize the initiative, to pick up the House of Lords reform ball that has been dropped and run off with it in his direction. The nation would be grateful to him. Politicians would be relieved that we were out of the old cul-de-sac on Lords reform. Above all, it would show there is precious life in the old Anglican dog that cannot only bark, but is intent on changes in the best interests of our nation.

Frank Field is Labour MP for Birkenhead and a former member of the Church of England General Synod

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