This week’s public debate about the role of faith in Britain today has thrown up some curious myths about the Church of England … and indeed about the presence of 26 of its Bishops in the House of Lords.
I am a practising Anglican (trying to improve) but I have been firmly committed to disestablishment for over 50 years, for the sake of both church and state. The muddled relationship doesn’t help either at a time when we have become, over the centuries, a multi-denominational and multi-faith nation.
In any case, Wales and Northern Ireland are not represented by the Church of England and Scotland has a different established church. Are they any worse for that ?
As for the Lords, when we in the Joint Committee on the Government’s reform bill were examining the issue of the ex-officio Bishops, I had an opportunity to question Archbishop Rowan Williams: with his experience of Wales, did he think that the church there, or the Welsh people, felt deprived because they had no Bishops in the Lords?
And far from being a necessary product of the Established Church, was it not true that the original medieval model for Parliament, long before Henry VIII and the Reformation, had for a time included more “Lords Spiritual” than “Lords Temporal”? And, indeed, did not these involve Catholic Abbots and Abbesses, as well as all the Bishops? And was not the reason for their inclusion that monarchs of the day needed the financial support of every big feudal landowner before they could contemplate a good war? The whole privileged role is an absurd anachronistic anomaly. Far from being the “moral compass” of the nation, the logic for the presence of the CoE Bishops on the Red Benches is that once-upon-a-time their predecessors were such big businesses they could not be ignored.
After that exchange Archbishop Williams commented: “I am afraid that anachronism is, to me, a shortcut in an argument.” But he didn’t dispute my facts.