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House of Lords: bishops should be joined by other ‘Estates of the Realm’

02 March 2011


From the Revd Barney Milligan

Sir, — There is a lot of talk at the moment about plans’ being hatched in the Government to “reform” the House of Lords. It is a proposal that featured at the General Election, with the promise that the elective process would play a significant part in determining the House’s membership — hence, presumably, the word “reform”. Now it appears that the proposals are about to be published.

There are bound to be some strong feelings around when the exact proposals actually break cover: indeed, some have started already. One newspaper had the story that Nick Clegg — who, it is understood, is in charge — plans to remove the 26 Church of England bishops who have seats in the House. The same paper declared that the Bishops were “furious” at the idea.

But would it not be wiser for them — and for Mr Clegg — to seize this as an opportunity rather than a cause for conflict between the guardians of the established faith and the atheist Deputy Prime Minister? The opportunity would, in the first place, be to cut the number from 26 to, perhaps, five, in order to make room for all the other Christian Churches of the land. Or Mr Clegg could go further and, perhaps with the Bishops, widen the group to include representatives of all the faith communities.

But we can go much further still. Such a proposal could provide the pattern for the whole new Upper House now being envisaged. It would make sense for the religious bodies to have places there only if the same principle were adopted for the other parts of our community. It could indeed make the Upper House a gathering of those who represented what has been described as the “Estates of the Realm”.

Such a list could include not only the faith communities, but the edu­ca­tional services (universities, col­leges, schools), the medical services (hospitals, clinics, doctors, etc.); local government, non-governmental organisations, the armed services, news media, commerce, banking (yes!) — and perhaps others.

It would not be easy. The operation would be strewn with difficulties. But the prize would be tremendous: a Second Chamber that could claim a different kind of authority from the House of Commons, as indeed the present House of Lords does. There could still be room for appointed members, and even for some hereditary members: there is no need to take an axe to the whole edifice. But the net result would be to have a serious voice of the Estates of the Realm present within the governmental structures of the land. It would be infinitely preferable to another repeat election campaign with all the same old party slogans.

Moreover, it would be thanks to those 26 Church of England bishops.

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