Bishop of Durham: why are bishops in the Lords?

It is an extraordinary responsibility to attend Parliament. As bishops, our faith compels us to raise questions with those in power about people on the margins, children, the voiceless, the many attacks on human rights abroad, and solutions to the climate emergency.

We are not there to simply defend the interests of the established church, or speak only for people of faith, but to play our own part in holding our elected powers to account on behalf of those who need us most, and help the process of making better law.

We have been at the forefront of recent campaigns in Parliament on justice for leaseholders facing fire safety costs, on prison reform, welfare of migrants and refugees, and on harms caused by gambling.

To those who argue that religion should keep out of politics, as Christians we look to the example of Jesus Christ, who did not fail to challenge those in authority when the needs of those on the margins were ignored.

Our work as Lords Spiritual is an extension of our service to the nation in parishes, schools, chaplaincy and charitable work, as the established Church of England. There will be few MPs unaware of the impact of churches and other faiths in their communities, acting as social glue.

We are summoned by the Monarch to attend the Lords; a tradition dating back to the very first Parliaments. But as our constitution has evolved, so has the role of bishop and the relationship between church and state.

First, we are spiritual leaders. At the start of each sitting we lead the House of Lords in prayer; we bring insights to debates based on our spiritual and constitutional roles, and the needs of the regions our dioceses cover. For me this is the north-east of England, a part of the country not well represented in the Lords.

We are independent members, not a party, and we don’t follow a whip. Unlike other members, our numbers are capped at 26 and we retire from the House when we leave office as a bishop.

Because of its establishment, the Church of England remains accountable to Parliament, which must approve its laws. In the House of Commons an MP acts as a formal representative who can be questioned by MPs of any party. Service and accountability are then as much a feature of this modern relationship with the state, as are historic and constitutional precedent.

We live in a multi-faith society, which has a famously unwritten constitution. Our national character and culture is still informed and enriched by the existence of an established Church of England and an anointed head of state who serves as our supreme governor.

But it often feels as though those who would do away with the Lords Spiritual have a view of church and state that is stuck in the disestablishment politics of the 19th century. If we started over, would we start from here? That is not the point. The story of these islands, like our constitution, ever evolving and unfolding, has brought us here.

Far from being a medieval hangover, bishops, like the non-aligned crossbench peers, might actually point us towards a vision of what a reformed Lords might look like; a forum wherein non-partisan civil society from all four nations can gather and participate in the legislative affairs of the country, whether from our charitable, industrial, educational, cultural or faith sectors.

A Parliament with no room for those voices would be a diminished one, in which full-time appointed professional politicians would dominate. A reformed Lords, as a forum for all UK civil society, with service, experience and expertise at its heart, taking the best of the past and matching it with what is good of the present, would place the interests of the people rather than parties at the centre of our shared debates. It would be an even greater benefit to Parliament and to our United Kingdom.

This article first appeared in The House magazine, 24th June 2021

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