This article responds to the reasons given by the UK Government to ignore the petition “Remove Church of England Bishops from the House of Lords” with our key objections to their failure to take it seriously.
“Changes to the composition of the House of Lords, including Church of England Bishops, are important but, given the very full programme of other constitutional changes, are not a priority at present.
The Government has no plans to remove the Church of England Bishops from the House of Lords.”
So the Conservative government is more interested in removing the UK from Europe than seperating church from state?
“The Government considers that the relationship between the Church and the State in England is an important part of the constitutional framework that has evolved over centuries. As senior members of the established Church of England, 26 bishops are appointed to the House of Lords. Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight into the work of the Upper House and while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faiths. The House of Lords also contains a number of other senior faith representatives.”
People of faith get a voice in the Upper House. What about those of no faith? There are humanists and atheists among the Lords, but they were not appointed on the basis of their irreligion. For every bishop providing “spiritual insight” why is there not a senior scientist providing insight in matters of fact and reality?
“People have a right to conduct their lives in accordance with their faith insofar as this does not unlawfully interfere with the rights of others and it is important to strike a fair balance between religious freedom of expression and the rights of, for example, lesbian, gay and bisexual people not to be discriminated against. Therefore, the law protects the rights of both these groups. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which received Royal Assent on 17 July 2013, extends marriage to same sex couples in England and Wales, while protecting and promoting religious freedom.”
This last paragraph is a complete red herring. Just like humanists and atheists, there are no lesbian, gay or bisexual people appointed to the House of Lords on the basis of their sexuality. The decision to postpone any serious discussion on the merits of maintaining peerages for Anglican Bishops isn’t about freedom of expression. It is just a desperate excuse for maintaining theocratic elements of the establishment.
Only the Church of England, a church that attracts fewer than a million regular congregants (less than 2% of the population of the UK), is entitled to 26 representatives in the Upper House on the basis of their religious careers. Mealy-mouthed and meaningless sops to ‘spirituality and faith’ completely overlook the fact that approximately 50% of the UK population now state that they have no particular religion, a phenomena which shows every sign of increasing.
The petition was prompted by the Church of England’s part in sanctioning the Episcopal Church in USA for its enlightened approach to equal marriage, mainly to prevent the conservative bishops of homophobic African congregations causing a split in the Anglican Communion.
Faced with the prospect of a significant schism, the Church of England sided with the homophobes. Statements condemning homophobia, whilst always welcome, lack any force of conviction when made by those who continue to deny people the right to marry those they love.
When Justin Welby recently spoke in Belfast about the humiliation of minorities, he did so without a flicker of self-awareness at his own apparent double standards.
This is one of the reasons why we want the bishops removed from the House of Lords. If they wish to deny progressive Christians equal speaking rights in their own communion, it seems not only fair but prudent to remove the priviledged and unfair voting rights the Church of England enjoys in the House of Lords.
There is only one way to ensure freedom of religious expression or the lack of it, and that is to separate church from state.