Bishops Move Over!
In this first year of the tens, why does anyone still cares what bishops say? Keith Denby contests the authority of the “Lords Spiritual”.
Once these powerful men commanded the attention of the kingdom; peoples lives and the prosperity of their families could depend on the will of the local Bishop. In 1278 the Bishop of Exeter was able to “ordain that every Dean, at his creation, shall swear to observe this our statute and ordinance, together with the other ancient and approved ones of the church of Exon.”
The current Bishop of Exeter gave a profile interview in the Western Morning News just before Christmas. Michael Langrish said that “‘Everyone has a right to their view … if they respect mine”. His Grace the Bishop still seems to be living in 1278. Nowadays respect has to be earned, it does not come with the job – as prime ministers, ministers and MPs have found to their cost. Substitute Robert Mugabe or Katie Price for the Bishop and the absurdity of his statement becomes sharply apparent. What has Michael Langrish actually done to earn our respect?
In the interview he accuses secular humanists of having a “hidden agenda” to claim the entire public forum for themselves and of not wanting a space for people of any faith. Yet Bishop Langrish merely makes a passing comment about his own privileged access to the very public forum of the House of Lords. Twenty six bishops of the Church of England comprise the “Lords Spiritual” and have full voting rights on any bill brought before the house. Beyond the political party in power, no other interest group has such extensive privileges of access to the public forum.
The Church of England has become sensitive to the steadily increasing criticism of this privilege and has taken to providing links to the Hansard text of the bishops’ contributions to Lords debates. Unfortunately this has only highlighted the self serving nature of most of these speeches. In November 2009, after graciously adding his condolences to the family of the policeman drowned in the Cumbria floods, the Bishop of Exeter gets down to the real business of asking the Chancellor to continue the listed places of worship grant scheme which has so far given around £81 million to the Church of England.
He was back with the collection plate on 21st Jan this year with an appeal for a VAT reduction for charities. Whilst this would benefit many worthy causes with no religious affiliation, it is also true that all the Parochial Church Councils that administer parish church finances are themselves charities.
The Lords Spiritual have a long and unpleasant history of blocking progress, mostly for the intended benefit of the Church of England. In 1831 the country was on the verge of revolution as demands for ‘one man one vote’ reached a crescendo. Britain needed to reform the voting system to bring ordinary men into the process of selecting the Government. The Second Reform Bill of 1831 was defeated in the Lords by 41 votes and the Lords Spiritual all voted against the bill. The country was outraged and there was a riot in Bristol that resulted in the burning down of the Bishop’s Palace. The Duke of Wellington, never regarded as a moderniser, had a better understanding of the mood of the country than the bishops and his ministry forced through the Great Reform Act in 1832 against their continuing opposition.
One of those opponents of reform was Henry Philpotts, Bishop of Exeter. Philpotts and his business associates owned 665 slaves in the Caribbean and were compensated for their loss when slavery was abolished. After the 1831 debate he whined that “noble lords had … spoken against them in a tone of sarcasm … as a body actuated by self interest at variance with the public good.”
Bishop Michael Langrish continues this fine tradition. On 25th January this year he spoke during the debate on the Equality Bill to plead that faith communities be allowed to continue to make their own decisions about matters that touch the very heart of religious faith and life.
But, in plain English, he was asking for the churches to be allowed to continue their discrimination against employment of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The Archbishop of York made the astonishing claim that the ability to discriminate against lesbian and gay people was a matter of “religious freedom”. In the vote on an amendment which sought to extend the exemptions permitting religious organisations to discriminate in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation, sex and marital status, the eight bishops present voted against the Government and the amendment was carried. This may lead to the UK being prosecuted in the European Court of Justice.
Such a regressive move by the Lords Spiritual is no longer likely to provoke any burning of bishops’ palaces but what little respect the general public has for ‘What bishops say’ has been even further diminished.
Bishop Langrish is quite wrong in his snide accusation of a hidden secular humanist agenda. The secular humanist agenda is right out in the open – there should be no privileged access to any public forum or legislature by any faith or belief group, all should have equal access and stand or fall by the merits of their argument. Among other things that means turfing out all the bishops from their privileged seats in the House of Lords, and they should be turfed out right now.
Keith Denby is a committee member of Devon Humanists, a BHA Local Development volunteer.
- Reform!: The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act – Edward Pearce (Pimlico 2004)
- British Humanist Association – http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/437
The British Humanist Association campaigns to end the special privilege which sees bishops of the Church of England sitting as of a right in the House of Lords.