A Christian presence in every community

The Church in Parliament

Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, took part in a Westminster debate on the future of the bishops in the House of Lords, on January 27th 2010.

The event was hosted by the Labour Humanists, under the banner 'Evict the Bishops?', Bishop Tim made the case for the place of the Lords Spiritual and was joined in this by Crossbench peer Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. Journalist Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia spoke against the bishops and the event was chaired by journalist David Aaronovitch.

A full transcript of Bishop Tim's opening speech is below:

Bishop Tim speaking in debate

Evict the Bishops? The Case for the Lords Spiritual

  We might on this side of the argument agree with our opponents that Parliament is facing a critical moment.  There is a crisis in Parliament resulting from the present collapse in confidence in elected representatives.  There is a challenge in Parliament if we are to raise the debate above the narrow dispute about the public finances in the run-up to the Election.  There is a deficit in Parliament around the capacity of the Elected Legislature to hold the Executive to account and to resist the will of an over mighty Government machine.  The question we face tonight is - does evicting the Bishops go any way to solving any these challenges?  My argument is that it solves none of these significant problems, and creates a number of new ones.  It feels like displacement activity - "something must be done; here is something, let's do it".

The bastion against the manipulation of Parliament is the present House of Lords.  And the component within it which I am here to defend is that of a small group of the Lords Spiritual whose presence has contributed to Parliament for 500 years and who bring to their contribution a network of connections into local communities which no other institution can begin to match, a regional perspective often lacking from the Upper House, and a framework of values which (while claiming no moral superiority over other's values) contributes to the political debate about what constitutes the common good.

You may have concluded that the case for the removal of the Bishops is self-evident and long overdue, but I can tell you that opinion in the regions is mostly very different to that.  Dining on Saturday evening with 26 Imams from the Muslim traditions in Leicester, I heard their overwhelming view that they want to see the Bishops remain in the Lords in order to keep a clear voice bringing a faith dimension to public policy making.  That is where the world's faiths see the place of faith - in the public square.  On Monday night at the Faith Leaders' Forum comprising Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Baha'i and Buddhist representatives exactly the same point was made.  The fact is that pluralism and the benefits of an established church travel hand in hand.  Further, the Power 2010 consultation, which is being led by Baroness Helena Kennedy, recently held a public representative body meeting at which the top priorities for constitutional change were set out and ranked in order of priority.  Removing Bishops from the Lords failed to feature anywhere.

And if the Lords Spiritual are seen as irrelevant, outdated, self-seeking and irrational, why do Peers themselves overwhelmingly advocate retention of the Bench?  ComRes polling in late 2008 tested a representative sample of over 100 Peers.  45% said they favoured no change to the Bench of Bishops, while 34% said they should be allowed to stay if other denominations and faiths had seats too (something the Church of England strongly favours).  That's a 79% proportion in favour of retention.

Removing the Bishops does nothing to address the fundamental democratic challenges we are facing.  It destabilises the Constitution, it undermines the presence of the Church of England in every community, it marginalises faith from the public square, and it ignores constitutional reform priorities, which as Polly Toynbee herself has argued, should begin by addressing what she calls "our disastrous first past-the-post voting system.

Let me deal briefly with three of the current arguments.  First that faith is dying, irrelevant to the population and outdated.  The present attendance figures at Church of England churches remain at just over 1 million per week.  This is a weekly attendance unmatched by any political party, voluntary association, public institution, trade union or, dare I say, the British Humanist Association, which can at most command 10,000 members!

Both the Oxford and Cambridge University Unions regularly stage debates about faith - why is that so?  Is this simply a morbid preoccupation with a dying phenomenon?  Is it because the students don't understand how misguided they are?  Is it because of some perverse ingredient in faith which makes it difficult for intelligent people to comprehend its irrelevance?

To live in a city like Leicester is to see the impact of faith wherever you look.  Nearly 25% of the city's population attend places of worship on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  The reach of these communities into the most vulnerable, the most alienated, the most "hard to reach" groups has been researched and documented.  Well over 400 faith sponsored organisations care for the homeless, the unemployed, the sick and the frail.  Their needs will intensify as public finances erode.  These organisations ask for a voice - they speak of the Bishop as "their Bishop".  They bring a distinctive perspective on life which requires to be heard in Parliament.

There are of course those who dream of a Utopia of secularised political institutions from which the remaining vestiges of religious interference are removed.  The fact is that every attempt to create a secular political space in this country has failed.  And there is no logical connection in any case between a secular constitution and a secular political environment - just look at the United States.

Second, let me deal with the arguments that the Bishops are a historical anomaly.  Bishops have been present in Parliament since its origins.  They predate the Church of England.  They were closely involved in the governance of this country from the earliest days.  Parliament is a living, evolving institution and at each stage in its long evolution reasons have been found to continue with spiritual representation.  The Bishops are a reminder that our key constitutional institutions, the monarchy, our system of justice, our system of education, health care and our charitable sector were all shaped by the Christian tradition and initiated by Christian motives.  The fact is that the argument from enlightenment liberalism on which the principles of pluralism rest, actually flow out of a Christian theological world view - the equal rights and dignity of all human beings under God.

Thirdly, there is the argument that Bishops are simply in Parliament to serve their own narrow interests. Bishops have made over 850 contributions to debate over the last 5 years - that is roughly one for every sitting of the House.  And look at the issues they speak on: nuclear disarmament, climate change, child poverty, international development aid, assisted suicide, housing and regeneration, cluster munitions, asylum seekers, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, human rights, multiculturalism‚Ķ among others.

I make no claim for the moral superiority of the Bishops.  I speak for those whose presence in the House is an expression of their service to their communities rather than any privileged influence and whose track record is of a concern for the common good. 

What constitutes the common good in any particular situation is what politics is or ought to be about.  For the Christian the common good arises partly from the imperative to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbour as oneself.  From a Christian perspective, if God's purpose for humanity is a common purpose, we have a duty to ask how the organising of society makes this purpose harder or easier, more or less attainable. 

The Church's responsibility is to offer a series of searching questions about what Government can make possible for people and about what barriers to creative communal life it needs to take away.  A healthy relationship between the Church and Government is one which Government accepts that it needs to be challenged constantly in order to enable a morally serious project for our common life to be taken forward, and one in which the Church examines itself relentlessly as to whether it is being faithful to a vision of human flourishing.  I believe the Bishops in the Lords have served both these purposes with distinction and that their contribution to the Upper House of Parliament is not just desirable but vital.

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