Thursday, 22 November 2012

Is the Church of England's stance on women bishops an argument for ejecting the Bishops from the Lords?

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Martin Rowson illustrates the Bishops in
the Lords for New Humanist back in 2007
Yesterday I wrote a brief post asking for your views (i.e. non-religious views) on the Church of England's vote to continue preventing the ordination of female bishops, in which I raised a few possible atheist positions on the issue, without committing to any opinions of my own.

The truth is, I wasn't really sure what I thought about the matter. On the whole I'm fairly indifferent (why does what the Church of England does matter to me?), while believing that any organisation in receipt of public funds ought to comply with equality law and provide both men and women with access to the top jobs. Ultimately, I'd be quite keen on seeing disestablishment become a 21st-century idea – it's always puzzled me why this has been seen as a crazy idea for the past 100 years or so, rather than simple secular common sense.

For secularists, one of the most infuriating aspects of the Church's established status is the enduring presence of 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, and as such it wasn't a huge surprise this morning to see a petition going round suggesting that if the Church is unwilling to accept women bishops, it should no longer be allowed to retain its automatic seats in the Lords.

Entitled "No women Bishops, no automatic seats in the House of Lords", the petition, aimed at the Government through its official e-petitions site, says:
"The Church has chosen to be a sexist organisation by refusing women the right to hold highest leadership positions and therefore should not be allowed automatic seats in the House of Lords, as this clearly does not comply with the spirit of UK Equality law."
At first sight, this may seem like a good argument – if an organisation can't comply with equality legislation, why should it be handed seats by right in the legislature? However, in my opinion this is the wrong basis for arguing for the removal of the Bishops from the Lords, because it implies that the status of the Lords Spiritual is a problem because of the Church's structure, rather than because it is anti-secular and anti-democratic (we'll leave aside arguments about the Lords and democracy in general for now) to afford a religious domination the special privilege of 26 seats in Parliament.

While it could be argued that there are pragmatic reasons for using the women bishops decision to highlight the absurdity of Bishops in the Lords, for me it is a mistake to build an argument for their abolition around this, because it implies that if the Church of England was able to resolve the issue the presence of its clerics in our legislature would be fine.

The reason I want the Bishops out of Parliament is simple – it's because I believe that religious representatives (of any stripe) should not be given an unelected role in the legislative process, and not because I have an issue with the internal gender politics of the Church of England.

In the end, I don't really care about whether the Church allows women to be bishops. But I do care that 26 unelected clerics are afforded special privilege in the making of the laws of the land.
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