ENGLAND: 'Jesus wouldn't want bishops in House of Lords,' says critic

February 1, 2010

If Jesus were on earth today, he would ask why the Church of England still has 26 of its bishops in U.K.'s unelected upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, a British commentator on Christian affairs has said.

Jonathan Bartley was speaking during a debate held in the British Parliament's building, and organized by the Labour Humanist Group, on whether Anglican bishops from England's established church (the Church of England) should be evicted from the House of Lords.

Bartley, the founder and director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, told fellow panelists and an audience of more than 100 members of the public, "To have a group of men -- they must be men and cannot be women -- who represent one part of the country (for they cannot be Scottish, Welsh or Irish) parachuted into parliament, would be condemned by bishops if it happened in any other part of the world."

"But because it happens in this country, and because they [the bishops] are involved in it, they defend it in the name of Jesus, and I think that if Jesus was here today he would say, 'Come on, guys. This isn't right. You know that it's wrong.' It's about inequality, and it's not the message of the gospel."

Britain is the only Western democracy that has unelected clerics in its parliament.

Reform of the House of Lords is a major topic of discussion among parliamentarians, politicians, church leaders, secularists and humanists.

Debate on the future of the so-called "Lords Spiritual" in the British Parliament's 742-member upper chamber continues, and is central to the question of whether the Church of England should, or should not, remain as the established church of England, whose supreme governor is the monarch and head of State, Queen Elizabeth II.

The Jan. 27 debate was chaired by journalist David Aaronovitch, a columnist on London's The Times newspaper.

In favor of bishops being evicted were Polly Toynbee, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, and president of the British Humanist Association, and Bartley.

The Rev. Tim Stevens, bishop of Leicester and convener of the Lords Spiritual, and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a church-going Anglican and lawyer, spoke against the motion.

Stevens told Ecumenical News International that the House of Lords is a bastion against "the manipulation of Parliament." He added, "And the component within it which I am here to defend is that of a small group of the Lords Spiritual." He noted that the bishops' presence has contributed to the institution for 500 years.

"They bring to their contribution a network of connections into local communities which no other institution can begin to match, a regional perspective often lacking from the Upper House and a framework of values which, while claiming no moral superiority over other's values, contribute to the political debate about what constitutes the common good," said Stephens.

After the debate, the bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, said, "I recognize that many people disagree with the presence of bishops in the House of Lords but I think that our presence there is appropriate and justified, and we have got a job to do."

Those for the motion argued that having Anglican bishops in the House of Lords was unfair to members of other denominations and faiths, and those of no faith at all. They voiced the view that if there were to be religious leaders in Britain's legislature, then there should be Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Scientologists as well as Christians.

Christian leaders have been involved in the legislative affairs of Britain since before the formation of the Church of England during the time of King Henry VIII. Before the 11th century, Saxon kings consulted feudal landlords and religious leaders. In the 14th century, religious leaders and landed gentry formed the House of Lords as, respectively, the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal.

Apart from a brief interruption following the English Civil War in the 17th century (1641-1651), religious leaders have played an active role in the U.K. Parliament ever since.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of Durham, London and Manchester are, by tradition, always members of the House of Lords. The remaining 21 places on the bishops' bench are not fixed but are occupied by those English diocesan bishops that have served the longest.

The organizers of the debate, the Labour Humanist Group in Parliament, said they were pleased with the quality of debate, and the number of people who had applied to attend.

"It shows the great public interest in this subject," organizer Alex Kennedy told ENI. Although billed as a debate, no vote was taken because it was a discussion only.

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