Chair of East London Humanists Paul Kaufman on how unrepresentative the unelected ‘Lords Spritual’ are in Parliament
PUBLISHED: 16:48 08 May 2013 | UPDATED: 16:48 08 May 2013
What almost unique feature does our Parliament share with Iran? It is the right of unelected male clerics to decide on the laws of our land.
The privilege is an ancient one with medieval origins. It is a right which exists nowhere else in Europe or in any other modern democracy – not even the United States where religion is much more influential. The 26 ‘Lords Spiritual’ are all Church of England bishops. They do not reflect the diversity of modern Britain, let alone of east London.
Representatives of some other Christian denominations, and the Chief Rabbi, have also been given Lordships on the basis of their calling. However, the privilege has never been extended to clergy representing the Catholic church or to any other faith group, such as Muslims or Hindus.
The privilege may seem unimportant in practice for the most part.
But the significance becomes very apparent when issues of morality and behaviour fall to be decided.
For example, as the debate on equal marriage proceeds through Parliament the unelected clerics, all male and mostly old, have a platform to argue and vote against reform based on views which are probably at odds with those of most people in Britain today.
Clerical influence has also been used recently to stifle parliamentary debate on the question of assisted dying.
This is a difficult issue. However, the ability of modern science to extend the lives of people suffering unspeakable distress does raise new questions which need to be carefully considered. We can no longer rely on old religious dogmas to provide the answers.
The automatic right of bishops to sit in the Lords is not only wrong in principle.
It also has huge symbolic importance.
It is an example of the preferential treatment which religion enjoys in many areas of our lives, for example in the running of schools.
Views such as these often lead to Humanists being denounced as “aggressive secularists”. But is it aggressive simply to argue against the religious receiving special treatment?