Don’t cheer for Rachel Treweek as she takes up her unelected, theocratic position in the House of Lords. Chase her – and all of her fellow Lords Spiritual – out of Parliament and back to the pulpits where they belong
So let’s get this straight: Scottish National Party MPs are scolded and warned by the Speaker when they spontaneously applaud what they believe to be a good speech in the Commons chamber, because clapping is wrong and unbecoming. But today, peers give a standing ovation to the first female bishop to take her seat in the House of Lords, and that is A-OK?
The appointment of Rachel Treweek, Lord Bishop of Gloucester, to the red benches is nothing to celebrate. Don’t misunderstand – it’s great that the Church of England now allows women bishops, and some of the first female candidates appear to be excellent theologians and pastoral leaders.
But in every other respect, the enoblement of Rachel Treweek is just another case of the British theocracy doing what it always does – appointing clerics of the favoured national church to unelected positions of power and influence in the heart of our political system. Don’t expect us to cheer on this occasion just because the Lord Bishop in question is a woman. Our belief in equal rights and opportunities for women should not be so glib and superficial.
This is all rather like the great hurrah when the rules of royal succession were changed to remove the male bias so that Princess Charlotte cannot be leapfrogged in the order of succession if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have another baby boy. Everyone fell over themselves to praise this move as a great leap forward, with Nick Clegg declaring that “the act puts in place succession laws that are fit for the 21st century and for a modern constitutional monarchy”, while ignoring the fact that our hereditary monarchy – whatever its doubtless good points – is and will always be a glaring anachronism.
Unelected theocrats from the Church of England sitting in the House of Lords had no moral right to inveigh against the relaxation of Sunday trading laws last week, presuming to speak on behalf of millions of people whom they can’t even tempt through the doors of their churches on Sunday. And in the year 2015 they should have no constitutional right to do so either.
As this blog pointed out last year:
The British people, usually so quick to voice their distaste for money in politics and big donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or trades union, should ponder this simple fact: of all the business moguls, special interest groups and union barons jostling to influence British government policy in their favour, only one organisation is powerful enough to boast twenty-six loyal, paid representatives ready to do its bidding in the upper house of the British Parliament. Britain’s 100 biggest employers, ten largest unions and her wealthiest people combined do not have the lobbying and legislative clout of the Church of England, an organisation that commands a weekly attendance of just 1.8% of the UK’s population.
If any organisation boasting a weekly attendance of around 800,000 can claim a hefty slice of representation in our national legislature then this blog would argue that the Lords Spiritual should immediately give up their seats to the twenty Premier League football managers or their club owners, who can plausibly claim to speak for even more people when television viewership figures are added to physical match attendance, and who are already the custodians of our real “national religion”.
(I write all this as a Catholic Christian, but one who firmly believes that a Jeffersonian wall of separation should exist between matters temporal and spiritual, for the good of our politics and our religious communities).
This blog has long argued that the Church of England and the British state should file for divorce. Separation would be good for both parties. British citizens would be able to walk a little taller knowing that we no longer live in a technical theocracy, the only country in the world besides Iran with unelected clerics sitting and voting in our national legislature. But the Church of England would benefit too.
Whenever the dear old C of E gets involved in politics these days, it does so from a hand-wringingly dithering leftist perspective, bemoaning the state of the world and nodding generally (but in a non-partisan way) in the general direction of More Socialism.
Thus capitalism is seen not as the economic system which has lifted more of God’s children out of poverty than all their earnest sermonising put together, but rather as something inherently predatory and evil. Thus the risible Bishop of Manchester was happy to love-bomb Jeremy Corbyn and organise an anti-Tory rally in his own cathedral during the Conservative Party Conference. And thus even today, Church of England bishops were standing up in Parliament and saying that Conservatives (and by extension those who voted Tory) are essentially amoral people.
The Church of England’s childish approach to politics is of course simplistic and wrong, and lazily buys into the left-wing narrative that right-wing ideas are inherently selfish and evil. But more than that, by continually agitating for left-wing policies and consistently coming down on the side of more government involvement in our lives, the Church of England actually undermines itself.
Most of us can agree that some form of universal healthcare and basic welfare safety net are good things, even if they are administered poorly and inefficiently in real life. But the Church of England always wants more. You’ll never find a Church of England bishop making the headlines arguing in favour of shrinking the state, encouraging personal responsibility and strengthening the role of family or community. No, they are always popping up on TV to denounce “austerity” and to clamour for more government for everyone, all the time.
And yet this is one of the factors which is killing the Church of England. At one time, people looked first to their families and communities for friendship and solidarity, cultural provision and spiritual sustenance. And the established Church of England helped provide many of these things for many people; the church was rooted in our communities. But now people look first to the government or the “authorities” whenever anything goes wrong. The expansion of the paternalistic welfare state has undermined much of what the Church used to do, rendering it worryingly without evident purpose at times.
Thus, each time that a hand-wringing Lord Spiritual appears on television denouncing the Tories and wondering aloud whether it wouldn’t all be much fairer if we perpetually cranked up government spending forever, they further undermine the foundations of their own institution, and of religion in general.
Or as this blog put it when Justin Welby was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury:
Perhaps it is directly because the state plays such a large part in everything that we do, from cradle to grave, that the church [of England] is withering and dying by the year.
As with most conjoined twins, separation is in the best interests of both the established church and the British state. But ultimately this must not be about the Church of England. Constitutional reform is long overdue in Britain, and should be enacted in the interests of all 63 million Britons, not just the 1.8 percent of us who make it to a Church of England service every week.
Let’s be frank: every day that the House of Lords continues to exist as an unelected chamber – packed with failed MPs, sleazy party donors, chinless inbred hereditary hangers-on and a theocratic contingent from a church with a weekly attendance barely greater than the English Premier League – is an intolerable affront to our democracy.
The Lords Spiritual are only one part of a much larger problem with Britain’s constitutional settlement, and in most cases they are eminently decent and well-intentioned people, far more so than many other life peers. But decency and good intentions should not spare their right to wield a vastly disproportionate influence in our political life.
We shouldn’t cheer with delight or congratulate ourselves on the breaking of a new glass ceiling just because a female theocrat has finally worked her way into the same indefensible position as the many male clerics who have meddled in our legislature before her. To view this as some kind of victory for feminism overlooks the far greater defeat for common sense, democracy and secular government.
No, we should not cheer Rachel Treweek as she dons her robes and travels to Westminster to help perpetuate and solemnify our international laughing stock of an upper legislative house. We should be chasing her – and all of her fellow theocrats – out of Parliament and back to the pulpit where they rightly belong.
Top image: Guardian politics live blog
Bottom image: Gloucestershire Echo
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A terrific blog, Sam. I agree with every word. Deserves a wider audience.
Many thanks, Eddie! Very kind of you.