The House of Lords

The National Secular Society's Evidence

The National Secular Society has been opposing religious privilege for 130 years. Arguably the most glaring example of this privilege today is the 26 Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords, as of right.

Our research confirms that Britain is the only Western democracy to have religious representatives in their Parliament, as of right. Yet, not only does the Government want to retain these 26 bishops, it wants to compound the inequity by introducing religious representatives of other denominations and faiths. It is undemocratic for these representatives to make laws binding on a population that largely considers religion to be irrelevant. The number of non-religious people in our country is growing. Their franchise would be further eroded with every additional religious appointee.

Religious belief and practice in Britain is at its lowest ebb, and in accelerating decline. Given that an increasing majority of young people do not believe in God, this trend will continue. Around 90% of the English population does not attend any church and only around 1% of the population takes Church of England communion. The Church even refuses to publish the latest attendance figures, presumably because the levels are so low and are declining so rapidly. An LSE professor told the Sunday Times last week "If the [attendance] figures continue like this the establishment of the church could be in the balance". Roman Catholic attendances in England are dropping still more rapidly - "haemorrhaging", according to an official source.

Yet even if many more attended church, there would still be no justification for either Anglican or Catholic bishops in the Chamber. They are remote and unrepresentative of their flock; they are middle class, middle aged and nearly all of them are white. And they are all male, unlike their congregations who are predominantly female. Yet it is these very women who would be most affected by the bishops'often-dogmatic stances. This particularly applies to Catholic bishops on such issues as contraception and abortion.

A surprising opponent of Catholic bishops taking up seats in the Second Chamber is the Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet. It warns that any Catholic bishops in the Chamber would not represent the opinions of British Catholics, but would represent instead the interests of the "Holy See". Does the Commission really want the Vatican to nominate members to our Parliament?

Religious leaders continually demonstrate their inability to provide moral leadership to the nation. Religious representatives do not posess any special moral insights that would be denied to other members of the new chamber. On the contrary, most of these religious representatives would represent morally absolutist views out of line with the country as a whole, and sometimes even their own members. What could we expect from the Vatican, for example, given it has just attempted to stop women raped in Kosovo from being given "morning-after" pills? These women are not even Catholics.

We are particularly concerned about religious representatives' titudes to Human Rights, when even Anglican bishops voted last year for religions to be exempted from the Human Rights Act. This was self-serving. But, far worse, the bishops seem unable to grasp the very concept of universal human rights. An Anglican bishop told me on Radio 4 in May that "We are very committed to human rights, but not where that trespasses on religious rights".*

If religious representatives were banished from the Second Chamber, religion would continue to be represented there. The new chamber would comprise those of all faiths and none, in approximate proportion to the population.

Existing temporal peers identify themselves as acting from religious motives, and those who profess no religion should not be regarded as any less capable of making good moral and ethical judgments - the Bishop of Oxford, one of the Commissioners, has acknowledged that.

A major practical problem is numbers. We believe that the new chamber will be overwhelmed by religious appointees if other denominations and faiths are admitted. The Church of England's refusal to concede any of its 26 seats creates an expectation for an unreasonable number of additional seats for other denominations and faiths. The English Catholic bishops want more than a token presence and could (on the basis of their higher church attendance) claim more seats than the C of E. So, already, we are up to over 50 seats without the remaining denominations and faiths. How many representatives will the three largest Jewish sects demand, or the larger Muslim community with its Shi'te and Sunni sects? No matter how many seats are offered, they will never be enough.

Those left out, or those who feel they have insufficient seats, will claim discrimination - and perhaps racism.

If such a plethora of religious seats ensues, the extension would be well-nigh irreversible, however much a failure it is.

There is just one solution that overcomes all the concerns I have catalogued: the solution we invite the Commission to propose is an entirely secular chamber. Establishing such a chamber would remove a disturbing undemocratic anomaly and demonstrate that Britain really is prepared to let go of its feudal past and to modernise its Parliament.

Keith Porteous Wood, General Secretary

* Bishop Butler of Southwark on The Sunday Programme, 9 May 1999

Reproduced by kind permission of The National Secular Society. ©

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