HANGING on by a wing and a prayer, the Lords Spiritual fight for their survival, writes David Maddox
FOR constitutional geeks the years 1871 and 1920 bear a special significance in terms of reform of that much debated body the House of Lords. The first date was the removal of the Irish Episcopalian bishops from the Upper Chamber, when it was finally accepted that Roman Catholicism and Presbyterian Protestantism were the churches of its peoples. The second was the removal of Welsh bishops, making the Lords Spiritual – as they are collectively known – an English-only body.
It is worth noting that there were never any Scottish bishops given seats in the House of Lords, because of the success of Scotland’s politicians in keeping the Church separate in their negotiations for the 1707 Act of Union.
So with this in mind, Archbishop Justin Welby’s appearance at the Press Gallery lunch yesterday was poignant at a time when political reform, devolution and English votes for English laws are so high on the agenda.
After all, if it is wrong for Scottish MPs to vote on England-only matters how can it be right that only representatives of an English church can be given automatic seats – 26 in total – in the UK’s parliament?
Somehow the Lords Spiritual – which came into being when bishops were the power brokers of Medieval England – have survived all attempts at reform, even Tony Blair’s cull of the hereditary peers in 1999.
Some of them would have even survived if Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had got his way.
So it was not surprising that Archbishop Welby – the first in his position to face the Press Gallery in parliament since 1975 – felt the need to justify the continued existence of the English Anglican Lords Spiritual.
It was an impassioned defence of an institution many see as arcane.
He said that the bishops offer something different, insisting “we don’t do party politics” although each bishop has his own portfolio.
He said that there is no other organisation with such a grassroots reach, with a parish network across England and international reach of 165 countries in 37 provinces of the Anglican community.
He even laid claim to the church representing religions in parliament, not just Anglicanism. He said: “The Anglican communion looks at the world with different lenses and by the Grace of God we seek to bring that vision in addressing crises of the day here [parliament].”
He added that it is “helpful” to have a group in parliament “that thinks in centuries rather than weeks, that considers the eternal as well as the temporal, the global as well as the local, the grassroots as well as the establishment.”