Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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A very British anomaly

It's time to end the historic right of Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

One thing above all stood out from Rowan Williams's evidence yesterday evening to the Parliamentary committee looking at proposals to reform the House of Lords, and that is that the Church of England is very keen to maintain its peculiar historic privilege of having bishops in the legislature. Indeed, he and the church he leads see it as a vital part of their wider role in British society.

The present situation might be seen as anomalous, he conceded (albeit "a constructive anomaly"). There were no ecclesiastical representatives deputed from Scotland (where the Presbyterian church also has official status) or from Wales or Northern Ireland, where there are no established churches. In a multi-faith society the absence of automatic representation for other religions might also be seen as problematic. Williams wouldn't object were some mechanism found for incorporating Jewish, Muslim or Hindu leaders, though he foresaw problems in identifying such leaders. But he didn't seem to think of this as much as a priority, in any case, since the religious voice was so well represented already by himself and by his fellow Anglican prelates.

It's at times like these that you realise the centrality of its legal establishment to the Church of England's sense of itself. The word is not ill-chosen. The church is indeed part of the British Establishment, and it shares vital characteristics with other parts of the country's ruling elite: an air of benignity and good intentions, impeccable good manners, a ready espousal of progressive ideals (more recently coupled with an enthusiasm for fashionable jargon), above all a sense of unshakable entitlement to its own historic privileges and a rat-like cunning in preserving them.

A perfect illustration of the latter came in what was by far the most newsworthy part of the Archbishop of Canterbury's presentation -- his suggestion that the first women bishops be fast-tracked into the House of Lords, thus avoiding a long wait until one of them achieved the necessary seniority. The church, he said, was "very conscious that one of the reproaches that can be laid against the bench [of bishops] is that it's not exactly representative in gender terms."

A lovely piece of Williams understatement, that. The implication is that a quota of Anglican bishops that did include a woman would be somehow more legitimate -- and thus have more of a right to be part of the legislature -- than an all-male one. But this is neither a good argument for having bishops in the House of Lords, nor for ordaining women bishops.

Another classic piece of Anglican chutzpah was Williams's claim that the job of the bishops was not to represent the interests of the Church of England at all. In fact, they were "bishops of the realm", uniquely able to provide a "faith perspective" on legislation. Williams was at pains to point out that the bishops weren't just there for the Anglicans, or even for the Christians. They formed a focus for "the web of relationships in communities they serve". They were able to "bring their experience to bear on all aspects of civil society". They had a "unique capacity to express common values". They even had (in their dioceses) "something like constituencies".

All this may be true. I'm sure that bishops, on the whole, are wonderful people. And I wouldn't deny that faith leaders have a part to play in the wider debate surrounding proposed legislation -- as do the leaders of other interest groups in the country. Nor is it unreasonable that when crossbench peers are appointed -- assuming that a future second chamber is not to be wholly elected -- present and former faith leaders be considered as candidates. But it's something else entirely to argue that a particular subset of religious leaders should also be ex-officio legislators.

In what was perhaps his most audacious comment in favour of the status quo, Rowan Williams suggested that for him and his fellow prelates to be ejected from a reformed second chamber (something that doesn't form part of the present reform proposals) "would be to send a signal that the voice of faith is not welcomed" in the legislative process. It would represent, in other words, not just a snub to the Church of England but for religion as a whole.

But that's nonsense. In no other democracy would such a confusion of religious leadership and law-making even be imagined. Bishops, and other faith leaders, play a valuable and significant role in society. So do members of both houses of Parliament. But it is in no sense the same job. Taking bishops out of the House of Lords would free them to devote more time to their diocesan responsibilities; to become better bishops. Sometimes the only thing to do with an historical anomaly is to end it.