I like to think we do secularism reasonably well in the UK, despite the obvious disadvantage of it not being a legal requirement. We’re not over run by religious crazies wanting to drag us back to the stone age. Fundamentalism is almost unheard of and those that do exist are largely ignored or mocked. The official state religion, the Church of England, is in a period of terminal decline. Creationism, religious objection to gay marriage and the defence of religious privilege are considered extreme views. And yet one thing remains, one thing that we share with just one other nation on this earth. It’s not a little club that we should be proud of either – the right of religious leaders to sit, unelected, in the House of Lords. This constitutional disgrace is shared only by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Being the official state religion, The Church of England enjoys state subsidy to maintain all it’s buildings and run most of its civic duties including hundreds of thousands of schools. However, despite being the largest religion in the UK, only 20% people identify as Anglican. A good proportion of those probably only attend church a few times a year, in fact 48% of those who identify as Anglican admit to never going to church. And yet, here we are in the 21st century with 26 unelected, unaccountable Lords Spiritual enjoying power beyond their right. Within my lifetime those 26 lords maybe the only members of their church left. Just two weeks ago the church published a report on attendance and habits of its flock, along with a stern warning for the future. The Rev Dr Patrick Richmond believes the church will cease to have any meaning or possibly even exist in 20 years time if it cannot muster a serious recruitment drive. The average age of its congregation now stands at 61, over 65 in more rural parishes. Once this generation has died there is unlikely to be anyone to replace them. Adult attendance has halved in the last 40 years and childhood attendance has seen an incredible decrease of 80%. Why then do we still tolerate their presence in the House of Lords?
The argument most often cited as to why the Bishops should remain is because they supposedly offer ‘a unique ethical stance’ when deliberating bills which pass through the Lords. I’m sure they do use their ethical standards during debates, its just the standards are outdated and unrepresentative of the population. Any group of people who claim ethical superiority, whilst being against gay rights, women’s rights and anti-science, cannot, and do not, deserve to be taken seriously. All three main political parties promised Lords reform in their election manifestos two years ago. I welcome most of this reform, it just doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. The size of the second chamber will be reduced from 800 lords down to 300, but 60 of those with be appointed and not elected. The number of Bishops will be gradually reduced from 26 down to 12 but will take several years to even get this far. 1 is too many. There will come a time when Lords Spiritual no longer have a role in British political life, but that day cannot come quickly enough.