Report finds bishops too political

14 February 2007

by Bill Bowder

BISHOPS in the House of Lords are accused of turning their backs on theological arguments, and failing to give a moral lead, in order to fit the fashionable liberal “discourse” in Parliament, in an analysis of their performance in the Upper House by the public theology think tank, Theos. The researchers, Andrew Partington and Paul Bickley, also found that the bishops’ speeches were consistently political.

After studying the speeches for their report Coming off the Bench, they found that bishops speaking in the Lords drew on statistics and facts four times more than they drew on their theology.

They used facts to support their points on 197 occasions; academic and professional advice on 149 occasions; but theological arguments on only 77 occasions.

They talked about the Bible for only seven per cent of the time, and they spent just one per cent of the time giving their lordships the benefit of their in-depth analysis of holy scripture.

The Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Kenneth Stevenson, who made far more contributions to Lords debates than any other serving bishop, was quoted in order to explain this absence of God-language.

In the debate on the Assisted Dying Bill last year, he said “I, too am concerned that there has been a tendency in wider debates to neutralise arguments of religious people on the grounds that they are religious arguments.”

The report said that the bishops were stuck in a liberal tradition that had little room for any other kind of discourse.

“There continues to be a surprising dearth of arguments that are rooted in theological or biblical perspectives,” it said. Unless bishops made “a more distinct moral and spiritual contribution”, they could find themselves out of the reformed Upper Chamber. Their arguments could be presented just as effectively by “the Lords Temporal”.

The researchers also found that under Tony Blair’s Government, bishops in the Lords had consistently spoken in ways that were either implicitly or explicitly critical of government policy.

They had rebelled under Margaret Thatcher, but the change from Tory to New Labour had seen no diminution in their opposition to government.

“Over the last 20 years, the attitude of the Church of England towards the state has been overwhelmingly critical. The changing nature of the connection we call establishment, and theological developments within the Anglican community, have seen it toe-to-toe with governments of both political persuasions on a variety of issues. This has been carried into the House of Bishops.”

The Church should review its involvement in the Lords, and could benefit from fewer but more effective bishops — chosen on ability, not seniority, the authors suggested.

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