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Holy Redundant: Let's get Bishops out of Parliament

26/04/2012 13:20 BST | Updated 24/06/2012 10:12 BST

This week we learned that the parliamentary committee considering reform of the House of Lords voted 13-7 to support the government's plan for automatic places for Bishops to remain in a reformed chamber.

They will be reduced in number from 26 to 12, but since the total number of appointed members of the chamber will also decrease, this will actually increase the proportion of Bishops relative to other appointed members. While they currently make up about 3% of the appointed House, they would make up anything between 12% and 17% of the appointed part of the reformed House.

Only 35% of the committee members voting opposed special reserved places for Bishops, with 65% of them in favour: proportions which are almost the diametric opposite of public opinion. 71% of public respondents to the 2002 consultation on Lords reform wanted Bishops removed; 60% of people in a YouGov survey this year wanted them out; an Ekklesia poll found that 74% of people opposed the automatic right of Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords, with only 21% thinking it right.

The total unrepresentativeness of the committee and the government's position is the reason for the launch of the 'Holy Redundant' campaign today, which is encouraging the public to let their MPs know of their opposition to automatic places reserved for Bishops in our Parliament.

No sound arguments were given in the report of the committee as having been considered to lead to the conclusion that Bishops should remain. Boiled down, what argument that does appear seems to be that Bishops should stay because they want to and some people of other religions want them to stay as well.

The only explanation we're left with is that the Church is a powerful vested interest, supported by powerful vested interests - just the kind you'd think that reform designed to make parliament more democratic and accountable might take on - but the kind that often triumphs, and has done so again. It is now up to those MPs and peers who do care about a fair reform of the Lords to take them in in the debates which the Bill will now proceed to have.

It is difficult to think of what arguments could possibly be made against the fair-minded parliamentarians to whom this cause now falls. The argument of tradition - that we should have Bishops because we have had them for a long time and it's best to leave things as they are - is nonsensical at a time of reform. The argument that Bishops bring unique ethical expertise is insulting to all those peers and MPs who aren't Anglican Bishops (whose ethical views may not even be that representative of Christians anyway when you consider that 70% of Christians support assisted dying for the terminally ill and 100% of Bishops in Parliament voted against it). The argument that removing them would amount to disestablishment of the church is rejected by legal experts.

More importantly, no argument that Bishops have a contribution to make to Parliament is a sufficient case for their having special reserved places in Parliament - why can't take their places through open election or appointment like anyone else? A route into the national parliament of a free and open country which is available to individuals solely by virtue of their religion, their gender and their position in the hierarchy of one particular denomination of one particular Church is a unworthy route for a modern democracy in a plural society.