One of our regular readers, @CommentatorIntl, has asked, “Why are there still Bishops in the Lords?” Good Question.
The short answer is that successive Prime Ministers and Governments have been too scared of all the other reactionary elements to want to take on the Church of England as well.
However, the history of the presence of the Prelates in Parliament suggests a more complex situation, as one of their number has explained it to me. In mediaeval times, the Bishops were such huge feudal landlords, and had such huge economic power as a result, that no Monarch could risk going to war without their consent to the necessary fundraising. At various periods, indeed, the “Lords Spiritual” outnumbered the “Lord Temporal”. At one time, all the Abbots and Abbesses were here too (the first women in the English Parliament, were therefore pre-Reformation nuns!). When Henry VIII broke with Rome he, wisely or timidly, decided not to risk yet another enemy and quietly incorporated the Bishops in the new House of Lords. Thus, strictly speaking, the presence of the Bishops has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Established Church, as I understand it.
Even if you are, like me, a practising Anglican, there is no rational reason for the Bishops to remain in a reformed House of Lords. For the busiest people in any denomination, or faith group, to have to split their time between their other commitments and the legislature is obviously unreasonable. Indeed, I recently heard a Bishop complain that he might have to attend on two days in the week, which would interrupt his other duties. There may be a case, if there are to be any appointees, for the various faith groups to nominate individuals, but that’s another matter and clearly very different to giving automatic seats – based on hierarchy – to only one denomination.
Occasionally, commentators suggest that the Bishops Bench is there as a sort of moral compass for the nation. In my humble opinion, every single Parliamentarian – whether Christian, of another faith, or none at all – should have a conscience which they are prepared to consult as part of their work here. MPs and Peers should not sub-contract morality to such a select sect.
So, the answer to that question is: “you may well ask!” Do I think that the proposed reforms will lead to the defenestration of all Bishops? Frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it!