Lords Spiritual No Longer, Part Two: The Bishops of Wakefield

On Easter Day, 20th April 2014, the Church of England Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield, will be merged to form a new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. Here – in three parts – is a (very) brief history of the bishops of those dioceses as parliamentarians. Part One (Ripon) can be viewed here.

Part Two: The Bishops of Wakefield

All but one of the 12 who held office as Bishop of Wakefield during the 126 year history of the diocese served in the House of Lords.

Walsham How

Bishop of Wakefield William_Walsham_How
Bishop William Walsham How

The first Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How, came into the Lords in March 1891, three years after his appointment to the new diocese and remained a member until his death in 1897. A memoir written by his son records his relief that the old system of the newest Lord Spiritual being on hand to read prayers at the start of each sitting had been recently replaced with a rota system for all bishops to share prayer duty (the system that still exists today).

Writing to his son about attending the Second Reading of the Home Rule Bill in September 1893, Bishop How described

a tremendous crush, numbers sitting on the steps of the gangways, six on the Woolsack with the Lord Chancellor, and many standing behind him, who could not get seats. The galleries densely crowded…I could not hear Lord Salisbury, for, though he spoke loudly enough, he had the back of his right shoulder to us.”

Though Hansard does not record any speeches delivered in the Chamber by Bishop How, the memoir describes how he took a close interest in the 1894 Local Government Act, the Employers’ Liability Bill, the unsuccessful 1896 Education Bill, and in the Benefices Bill, which became an Act after his death. The 1894 Local Government Act saw the creation of rural parish councils and How noted with frustration that the reservations expressed by bishops about how the new structures might place burdens on rural schools had led to criticism of the Lords Spiritual:

the bishops have been accused of being careless of the interests of the rural parishes, and opposed to any enlargement of the liberties of the people.”

In May 1891 Bishop How wrote to the Leader of the House of Commons, WH Smith MP, during the passage of the Clergy Discipline Bill (later the Act of 1892). He proposed an amendment to the Bill for “a provision for the withdrawal of the spiritual charge of the parish” alongside other measures, explaining:

were the Bill to be enacted in its present form, a criminous and unscrupulous clergyman, convicted (say) of adultery in a Divorce Court, might argue that, although the act could take away his benefice, it could not take away what the bishop had given him, namely, the spiritual charge of the parish, and he might accordingly open a room and hold services in defiance of the act of his bishop; being supported (i) by unscrupulous friends, (2) by over-scrupulous Church people, who would hold him not rightfully deprived of his spiritual office.

Responding, WH Smith disagreed:

I think the evils you fear as possible can hardly arise…I have had the opportunity of talking privately with Mr. Gladstone on the Bill, and, although I think he himself does not in principle object to your suggestion, he made it clear to me that there would be very strong opposition among others on his side of the House.”



Bishop How’s successor as Bishop of Wakefield, Rt Rev George Eden, served the diocese in that role for 31 years, 23 of which were spent in the House of Lords (1905 onwards until his retirement in 1928).

Bishop George Eden
Bishop George Eden

Within a year of his arrival in the House he was alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, helping opponents of the 1906 Education Bill table amendments that would eventually prove fatal to it. The Bill, which sought to address the grievances of non-conformists and had been passed by a large majority in the Commons, was proposed by the Liberal Government of Campbell-Bannerman. Bishop Eden later served as Chair of the Education Committee of the Church of England National Assembly.

He also spoke about the housing conditions of the working poor, regulation of betting and in 1912 led a debate on ‘the failure of the West Riding County Council to carry out its undertaking to build chapels (to be used by all denominations) in connection with two lunatic asylums in their district’, succeeding in encouraging the Government to apply pressure.

Hone and the Butler Act

Rt Rev James Seaton, third Bishop of Wakefield, was

Bishop Campbell Hone
Bishop Campbell Hone

unable to contribute to the work of the House, dying in office in 1938, less than a year after joining the Lords.

His successor, Rt Rev Campbell Hone, also spent a short time as a Member, entering in 1944 and retiring two years later. He delivered his maiden speech during the passage of the Education Act of 1944 (the ‘Butler Act’) focusing on committee structures, teacher recruitment and training and the moral and spiritual instruction of pupils. Welcoming much in the McNair report, he nonetheless heavily criticised its lack of

“recognition of the child as a moral and spiritual being, as a personality. If you are content with that, what have you better than the Nazi system?”

Bishop Hone spoke to several amendments, but was most successful in persuading the Government to accept changes to give Local Education Authorities the power to create standing advisory councils on religious education. During the later passage of the Bill the Minister Earl Selbourne said

It is one of the big improvements in the Bill made here and we owe it to the Bench of Bishops.”

Bishop Hone’s immediate successors did not make such an impact. Rt Rev Henry McGowan, never joined the Lords, dying in office in 1948, whilst Rt Rev Roger Wilson, the 6th Bishop of Wakefield, became a Lord Spiritual in 1955 but did not deliver any speeches in the Chamber before his retirement in 1958.

Ramsbotham and Treacy

Rt Rev John Ramsbotham, who became a Lord Spiritual in 1962, spent five years in the House. In his maiden speech he strongly welcomed the Newsom Report on improving education for those of lower academic ability and in a 1964 debate on the welfare system he spoke of the need for the Church to adapt to the evolving landscape of growing state and voluntary providers:

I see a new relationship between Church and State being evolved here: a partnership different from anything that has ever been known before. For, with the extension of the total cure of souls, the care of the whole person, to trained and partially trained social workers in the various fields of welfare service, the ordained minister now has his place alongside the other workers as one professionally trained to help people at the particular level of pastoral care for which his office stands. A mutual recognition of each other’s professional qualifications and special functions by all the workers in this field, including the ordained minister, is what seems to me to be called for to-day, in order that there may be as full and effective co-operation as possible.”

His interventions focused on education, including speeches welcoming the 1967 Plowden Report on primary schooling, and on adolescent mental health. His son is the current Crossbench Peer Lord Ramsbotham.

Bishop Eric Treacy
Bishop Eric Treacy

Rt Rev Eric Treacy, 8th Bishop of Wakefield, entered the Lords in 1972 and served until his retirement in 1976. His maiden speech was made in opposition to a Private Member’s Bill that sought to transfer ownership of disused village school halls over to communities. He took an interest in penal affairs and his second speech, in a debate on prison reform tabled by Lord Longford, came to public attention for his suggestion that prisons might accommodate both sexes:

Do not misunderstand me. I am not proposing sexual promiscuity in our prisons. I am simply saying that the presence of men and women in the same establishment would produce a more natural environment and remove some of the dangers of an enforced monastic situation”.

He also voiced concern about the welfare of prison officers and discharged prisoners and suggested that inmates should be allowed to earn a wage. In 1975 he supported a motion from Lord Belstead “that this House condemns the Government’s policy to end the present system of direct grant grammar schools”. He also spoke in support of strengthening the law on obscene publications.

James and Hope

Rt Rev Colin James served in the Lords as Bishop of Wakefield from 1982 until his translation to Winchester in 1985. Many of his interventions related to media regulation (Bishop James chaired the Central Religious Advisory Committee, which advised the BBC and the IBA).

Bishop Colin James
Bishop Colin James

He used his maiden speech to criticise inadequate protections for public service broadcasting in the Report of the Inquiry into Cable Expansion and Broadcasting Policy. A year later he welcomed the recognition of those concerns in the Government’s White Paper on the cable television industry. He subsequently spoke supportively of the Cable and Broadcasting Bill when it came for scrutiny before the House in 1983. He also gave his backing to the legislation that became the 1984 Video Recordings Act, prompted by public and media alarm about ‘video nasties’.

Outside broadcasting issues, Bishop James voiced concern about unemployment and about Government plans to abolish the metropolitan county councils.

Although Rt Rev David Hope, is more often remembered for the roles he translated to, as Bishop of London and then Archbishop of York, he spent his first year as a Lord Spiritual (1990-1991) as the 10th Bishop of Wakefield. He did not, however, deliver any speeches in parliament during this time.

McCulloch and Platten

Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, was by the time of his retirement as Bishop of Manchester in January 2013, one of the most experienced of the Lords Spiritual on the Bishops’ Benches. Of his 15 years in the Lords, his first six (1997 – 2003) were spent as the 11th Bishop of Wakefield.

Bishop Nigel McCulloch
Bishop Nigel McCulloch

During this time he became Lord High Almoner to HM Queen, Chaplain to the Royal British Legion and the Church of England’s lead bishop on media and communications issues. In this latter role he spoke up frequently for the place of religious programming within the context of public service broadcasting. His contributions in the House also often drew on local diocesan experience to inform a concern about economic and social inequality, an example being his maiden speech on the appointment of a Government ‘drugs czar’.

In November 2001, during a debate on UK military action in Afghanistan he warned:

All the evidence seems to suggest that the longer the bombing of Afghanistan goes on—and I state this simply as a fact—the more Christians will be attacked, made homeless, their churches burned, and men, women and children killed.”

Other notable interventions were made during the 2000 Learning and Skills Bill, on disability discrimination, prison reform, gambling, Christmas Day trading and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

His successor as the 12th and last Bishop of Wakefield, Rt Rev Stephen Platten, formally retires from the House of Lords on 20th April 2014, the date at which the new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales comes into being. He has been a Lord Spiritual since 2009 and has led for the Bishops’ Benches on defence issues, as well as taking a close interest in rural affairs.

Bishop Stephen Platten
Bishop Stephen Platten

A regular contributor to parliamentary debates and tabler of oral and written questions, the Archbishop of York, said of him during his farewell address to the Bishop at the General Synod in February 2014:

In the House of Lords Bishop Stephen has been lead Bishop for Defence and the Military, and takes a keen interest in international affairs and development. He has focused much of his attention on the Great Lakes region of Africa, speaking about the concerns the Church there has with the prevalence of sexual violence and continued tribal struggles. He often speaks about Georgia – a country where he has made many friends… Nearer home, Bishop Stephen is one of very few Bishops ever to have joined a picket line. He was protesting about the low price of milk paid to dairy farmers, seeking a fair deal for farmers against costcutting corporate greed. Bishop Stephen dedicated himself to issues representing his local community in Parliament with dynamism and energy. In Parliament one of his final debates will be on the humanitarian situation in Syria.”

His maiden speech was in a debate on the UN Responsibility to Protect  and he became closely involved in the scrutiny of the Armed Forces Bill (tabling amendments for an independent reviewer of armed forces welfare) and the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill that created a ‘supermarket ombudsman’. He spoke authoritatively across a wide range of subject areas, from education to welfare, to foreign affairs. His final speech, delivered on 27th February 2014, was in a debate approving statutory instruments connected to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.


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