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Lords Spiritual: a problem of transparency and legitimacy

There are twenty-six English Bishops in the House of Lords. How are they appointed? Recent events have shown the procedure to be secretive and flawed. Any future reform of the Upper House must question the legitimacy of the Lords Spiritual.
Scot Peterson
5 February 2012

There are twenty-six English Bishops in the House of Lords. How are they appointed? Recent events have shown the procedure to be secretive and flawed. Any future reform of the Upper House must question the legitimacy of the Lords Spiritual.

On February 9, the General Synod of the established church of England (but not of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) will discuss its position on the government’s proposed reforms to the UK House of Lords.

One of the government proposals would make it a partially elected house, and twelve of the existing twenty-six English bishops would remain members ex officio. Alternatively, the government will consider making it a fully elected House, in which case the bishops would no longer have seats in the legislature. Although the proposals would clarify the appointment process for any remaining life peers, remaining lords spiritual would be appointed under the existing, separate system, which applies only to them.

Since last July, a joint parliamentary committee has been receiving evidence on reform, including a submission from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (p. 479). On 28 November the Archbishop of Canterbury testified to a not-entirely-friendly committee. One of the claims that he made there was:

[Bishops in the upper house] bring to bear their experience of all aspects of civil society in their own diocesan area. It has been said that they are in effect the only members of the upper House who have something like constituencies. I draw the Committee’s attention to the appointments procedure for Bishops—it is not always widely understood. It involves elected members of our Synod and extensive consultation with civil society in the vacant diocese. It approaches and draws opinions from a large number of people in, for example, civil administration, education, and a number of other community locations. (p. 5)

Several committee members were not impressed. Lord Tyler pointed to the anomaly of having religious representation from one of the four nations of the United Kingdom but not from the other three. Baroness Scott of Needham Market challenged the representative character of the bishops, if of the 42 English dioceses only twenty six (to be reduced to twelve) are represented at any given time. Finally, in response to questioning by Daniel Poulter (Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich), the archbishop admitted that the more intense demands on a smaller number of bishops would present the question ‘of their having to act more like professional politicians in the sense of giving the time’. (He attempted to retract the characterization under further questioning).

For purposes of the upcoming synod debate, however, the following question by Baroness Young of Hornsey merits attention:

If someone says, in relation to the appointment of Bishops, that the Bishops come from a relatively narrow spectrum of society and that they have separate rules of appointment, separate discipline and no women, does not all that undermine the notion of legitimation either through democratic election or through a rigorous independent appointments procedure? (p. 14)

The archbishop’s response was a restatement of the passage quoted above. But recent events have shown that the episcopal appointments procedure is neither legitimate, rigorous nor independent. In fact, the appointments procedure, which is conducted in secret by the Crown Nominations Commission, is not fit for purpose. A single case study will illustrate the point.

In 2003 the Rev. Jeffrey John, a gay man who was a canon of Southwark Cathedral, was nominated as bishop of Reading. He was forced to withdraw his name from consideration, after conservatives in the church put pressure on members of the Crown Nominations Commission, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was considered once again for the office of Bishop of Southwark in 2010. However, his candidacy became public when it was leaked to the press in violation of the confidentiality rules of the commission. The leak, apparently by a ‘senior lay evangelical’ on the commission, created sufficient pressure that at the subsequent meeting of the commission John was not chosen for the vacancy.

Later that year, a memorandum by the late Rev. Colin Slee (Dean of Southwark) was released, describing the circumstances under which the commission had met: ‘both archbishops [Canterbury and York] behaved very badly’; the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, ‘denounced the Diocese of Southwark’; members of the commission ‘were in tears’; and following a strategic visit to the lavatory with Sentamu, voting patterns changed—undoubtedly with adverse consequences for Jeffrey John.

This January the scandal re-erupted when The Mail on Sunday published an article claiming that John’s lawyer had threatened to sue the church because its selection criteria were inconsistent with equality laws. The article was commented upon widely, and it became clear that his solicitor’s letter had been leaked. Neither John nor his supporters stood to benefit from disclosure of the letter; his opponents, including many Mail readers, did.

The Church of England has done nothing publicly to follow up on and correct any of these procedural failures. Although at the request of the archbishops (p. 72) Baroness Fritchie has undertaken ‘external scrutiny’, neither her report nor even her recommendations have been made public. No public review has taken place of the functioning of the Crown Nominations Commission, of its leaks to the press, nor of its chair (in these cases) the Archbishop of Canterbury’s failure to ensure its proper operation.

If the process of selecting bishops is, as the archbishop testified, ‘not widely understood’, perhaps it is because leaders of the church want to keep it that way.

The Church of England cannot afford to avoid questions like these if it is to maintain its privileged position in the legislature. The debate on February 9 will be about how the Church of England can respond to proposals to reform the upper house. However, before it begins responding it should put its own house in order.

Since synod last met, the archbishops appointed a group, consisting mostly of bishops, to act on behalf of the church in response to the proposals; its activities will be the subject of the debate next week. The background papers say that the matters to be discussed will include how to inform synod about the progress of the proposals and a process for synod’s ‘endorsement’ of any necessary changes to the bishops’ roles in a reformed house. In conjunction with these matters, however, Synod should insist on a proper, public, independent investigation of the way in which the Church of England selects its members of parliament.

Unless bishops in the Church of England are selected through a transparent, accountable process, they should not sit in the upper house of the legislature.

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