Let's Banish the Bishops from the House of Lords

The UK is the only Western democracy that reserves a place for God in its political process.

Ralph Jones

Ralph Jones

(Photo by Oliver Quinlan, via)

On Monday evening, gay marriage was the primary topic of discussion in the House of Lords. And it was a very positive discussion; a majority of 175 voted against an amendment to the gay marriage bill that would have allowed registrars to refuse to marry gay couples. (Baroness Tina Stowell also took the time to discuss the prospect of Lord Alli – the first openly gay member of Britain's upper house – having sex with George Clooney but we'll leave that kind of idle chitchat to the people charged with running the country.)

Contrary to what you might expect, since the 4th of June – when peers voted to support government plans for same-sex marriages – everything has been pretty gay-friendly in Britain's most archaic of institutions. However, it would be dangerously easy to overlook the fact that, as journalist Patrick Strudwick pointed out, not a single bishop in the House of Lords voted in favour of the gay marriage bill.    

Spurred on by the rallying cry of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, nine Spiritual Peers approved of the amendment “wrecking” the equal marriage bill, while a further five abstained. That means that 12 of the full 26 – whether they supported equal marriage or not – didn't even bother ironing their cassocks and leaving the house to have their voices heard.

The presence of the bishops in the House of Lords is a hangover from a time in which the church exercised a great deal more influence than it does in the 21st century. And the fact that this clout is in seemingly terminal decline is something we should be extremely grateful for. Because were the House of Lords populated entirely by bishops, the equal marriage bill might not have come into effect until musty men of the cloth got their heads around the fact that two people of the same sex can be in love without the abortion rate instantly going through the roof.

But get their heads around it the bishops must, because – as Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society wrote recently – “Same-sex marriage is going to happen and there is nothing that the Christian Institute, the evangelical activists and the ancient regime can do to hold back progress.” It's taken an issue as divisive as equal marriage to remind the country of the extent to which bishops stand on the wrong side of history, and – in a sense – that was the second piece of news to celebrate on June the 4th.

A video from the UK Secularist Party calling for House of Lords reform.

There is, after all, still an extraordinary amount of bullshit being spouted about equal marriage. And denying the fact that the vast majority of it is informed by religious conviction would only be reinforcing that towering Krakatoa of nonsense.

Archbishop Welby claimed in his address to the House of Lords that equal marriage “is not, at heart, a faith issue”. While he's entirely right – the legislation has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with equal rights – it would be illuminating to hear why, then, not a single one of the 26 Lords bishops voted in favour of same-sex marriage when 278 peers without church affiliation did. Clearly, the Spiritual Peers do see it as a faith issue. Or is the Archbishop deluded enough to believe that these men (and it is 26 men and zero women, naturally) have a far more acute perception of what is best for “the general social good” than the majority who voted to scupper the amendment?

Inside the House of Lords. (Screengrab via)

The idea of reforming the Lords is one that rears its head often, but with little effect. In 1649, the entire chamber was abolished (due to the Lords being “useless and dangerous”), only to be reinstated in 1661. In the 1830s, various bills requesting the removal of bishops were defeated and, in 2012, the coalition withdrew a bill that would have at least incrementally reduced the number of bishops.

As soon as genuine reform looks likely to happen, the status quo is maintained – the government grovelling at the feet of tradition. That said, I'd imagine that – if put to vote or referendum – the only significant objection to a reform abolishing bishops would come from the elderly men themselves. It's unlikely that the general public, the vast majority of whom seem to think that the idea of powerful, unelected pensioners with invisible friends is absurd, would raise any objection. Polly Toynbee noted in 2010 that “74 percent of voters think unelected bishops should have no place in our legislature”. Were this poll to have been taken after the bishops' position on equal marriage, I would wager that the 74 percent might be more around the 90 percent mark.

We live in a secular country and have a democratically elected government. The fact that “the UK is the only Western democracy to give religious representatives the automatic right to sit in the legislature” has, for a long time, been idiotic in principle. But equal marriage has shone a light on just how urgently this situation needs to be changed. Organisations like openDemocracy and the British Humanists Association have been campaigning for decades to get God out of British politics. The sooner we put the relic that is the Spiritual Peers behind us, the better.

Follow Ralph on Twitter: @OhHiRalphJones

More stories about gay marriage:

I Spoke to Anti-Gay Marriage Protesters in Paris

Fact: Gay Marriage Kills Babies

After Gay Marriage, Why Not Polygamy?