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Britain needs bishops in the Lords

30 November 2012

Arguments about gender should not derail the wider debate, says Marie-Elsa Bragg


Representative: the House of Lords at the State Opening of Parliament in May

Representative: the House of Lords at the State Opening of Parliament in May

In this tense climate of the debate about the General Synod vote on women bishops, in which MPs and the general public are using the vote to question the place of bishops in the House of Lords, I find myself agreeing about the need for the principle of equality in the Second Chamber, but not always for the same reasons.

To have bishops in the Lords affirms the importance of a spiritual view at the heart of the development of the laws that govern us. I understand that all individuals can bring that perspective, and the Lords Spiritual do not have a monopoly on a moral view; but to have this enshrined into our constitution is a philosophy I can respect deeply.

It shows that, as a nation, we are serious about building towards the bigger picture, the greater good, and the spiritual health of our people. A constitution is designed to symbolise the beliefs of those it serves, and the Queen's being supreme governor of both Church and State, bringing them together under one anointed leader, and the 26 seats in the House of Lords are symbols to be proud of.

Yet, after many conversations over the years, and particularly over the past week, I appreciate the strong secular voice, which demands that for the Church to serve in this capacity, it must adhere to the fundamental ethics of our society, and the laws that have been passed by the very governmental process in which these 26 seats participate.

The day after the Synod vote last week, a petition was put on the Government website by Lee Chalmers, a leadership consultant and trustee of the Fawcett Society, calling for the abolition of seats for the Lords Spiritual, if they can be only for men. Being aware that many will be using the vote against women bishops to promote their argument (which would still have been opposed to bishops in the Lords, even if the vote had gone the other way), I contacted her.

She said: "I didn't give too much thought in the past to bishops being in the House of Lords, to be honest. I am aware that there are many people who argue against their having seats at all, but it was not an issue that moved me. I'm interested in equality, in particular for women, so I was watching the Church's vote carefully. When I saw a 'No', I was so demoralised, so utterly shocked and dismayed that I felt I had to do something.

"Myunderstanding of the Church is that it's a force for good, and with these seats reserved for men only, and so recently sanctioned, albeit by a small minority, it risks becoming quite the opposite force for women."

The discrepancy between majority view in society and the view of those who voted against women bishops in the Synod is not the reason why I agree with many of these secular conversations. Our duty is to not be swayed by media or popularity, but to keep our eyes on God and service.

It is, however, our duty to listen to people, as God speaks through them. All of us who have questioned our vocation are aware that we discern whether it has come out of the people we serve, as well as from deep within. And it is clear that in the vote, we heard a majority who were in favour from our dioceses and synod, which I believe is God speaking through a large number of people.

In addition, it has become clearer than ever in the past week that a further large number of "secular Christians" still believe that this is their Church. They wish their voice to be heard and represented by bishops in the Lords, even if they attend church only for weddings, christenings, funerals, and Christmas. These people have pulled away from regular attendance, but still clearly look to us from a distance, and seem to be waiting to find God in us, and for us to find God in them again.

To keep our bigger picture, our overview and ministry to the spiritual health of our people, we must recognise that we are their home, and as history continues to move forward, we must continue to minister to them.

The Church is not a democracy, but it uses a democratic process to discern its calling. Every generation has a duty to listen to what may be coming through. Through my work on leadership training programmes at Said Business School in the University of Oxford, and with Olivier Mythodrama Associates, I am aware that there is a new wave of people in the business world seeing the need for a spiritual perspective.

Many of these dedicate long days of work, battling with their work/life balance, and often feel so much pressure that they are in danger of derailment. They see the need for more meaning and the inspiration to change things for the better. And the companies themselves are looking for a vision of the greater good in how they govern their employees and in their contribution to society.

Questions such as "What do you serve?" and "When you look back, what would you like to have contributed?" are being asked. I see people looking for something in their heritage that they are proud of, to stand in line with their ancestors, and make a difference. This view is being expressed in many aspects of work and life in the country: it is a good example of the Spirit working in new ways.

In the current debate, I agree with the need for the principle of equality in the Second Chamber because so many hear it as our calling - a ministry of men and women working together as Lords Spiritual in the heart of the nation it serves. I believe that our archbishops and bishops in the Lords are, and will continue, working in deep discernment to follow this call.

The Revd Marie-Elsa Bragg is Assistant Curate at St Mary's, Kilburn, and St James's, West Hampstead, and a Duty Chaplain at Westminster Abbey.


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