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article imageHelp to reform lawmaking chamber, UK bishops urged

By Andrew John     Mar 12, 2010 in Politics
Anglican bishops in Britain are being urged to take a leading role in reforming the country’s upper legislative chamber, the House of Lords.
Under present law, 26 bishops sit in the Lords as of right – by merely being Anglican bishops. This is enshrined in the UK’s unwritten constitution concerning the Church of England’s status as the “established” church.
The religion-and-society think tank Ekklesia has teamed up with the democracy campaign Power2010 in an initiative to urge bishops to take a lead in the campaign for a more accountable upper chamber.
Local churches and others are being encouraged to contact bishops, and ask them to continue in their support for what is being seen as a bottom-up campaign to reinvigorate democracy, which saw 100,000 votes cast in a public survey, many in support of a reformed House of Lords.
The public vote, which finished on 22 February, saw an all-elected second chamber (as opposed to an appointed or part-appointed one) supported as the third-most popular reform.
“Several bishops have previously spoken favourably about Power2010,” says Ekklesia, “which aimed to identify five key political reforms.”
Bishops are now being urged to support the results, and in particular the five reforms. The first of these would see religious people participating alongside others in public life through civic action, free debate and good example – not through special reserved places and exemptions.
The second principle is that members of the second chamber be elected (they are appointed at present). The third is that legislation be scrutinised for its impact on the most vulnerable in society – not primarily the rich and powerful.
The fourth principle is that membership should be open to independent and minority elected voices – not dominated by the big party machines. The fifth reform would ensure that parliamentary business would be discussed and voted upon in ways that encourage common action, cooperation and understanding of differences – rather than division and confrontation.
Jonathan Bartley, Ekklesia co-director – who recently debated the role of bishops with the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, convener of the bishops who sit as of right in the House of Lords – said: “During the debate, the Bishop spoke about the importance of democracy and mentioned Power2010 by name. Other bishops, too, have spoken favourably about the initiative in the House of Lords itself.
“Reform of the Second Chamber is an inevitability. The debate about the role of religious people has often been conducted in a defensive way. But now religious leaders have the chance to put the case for positive change, which will benefit everyone for years to come. The bishops should take a lead in this.”
Ekklesia says of the current system: “At present, Church of England bishops sit in an unelected House of Lords as of right. Britain is the only democracy where non-elected all-male representatives of one religious denomination have a place in the legislature. Ekklesia has long argued that this is wrong from both a constitutional and Christian stance, and is urging the bishops themselves to recognise the need for change and to seek a properly accountable second chamber in which persons of faith, alongside others of goodwill, may stand for election and be held publicly accountable when in public office.”
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