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Bill will put women bishops at head of queue for House of Lords

19 December 2014


Fellow-prelates: the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London accompany the Most Revd Justin Welby, the newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, as he is introduced​ in the House of Lords as Archbishop, in February 2013. The Lord Bishops sit on the Government benches, to the left in the photo 

Fellow-prelates: the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London accompany the Most Revd Justin Welby, the newly-appointed Archbishop of ...

AS THE Bishop currently at the head of the queue, the Bishop of Lincoln might have been expected to be a little put-out by plans to enable his female colleagues to enter the House of Lords before him.                    

Instead, as the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill received its first parliamentary reading, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, welcomed the news.

"On the one hand, this is quite frustrating," he said on Thursday, "because greater Lincolnshire is under-represented in the House of Lords. . .

"However, far more frustrating has been the wait for women to be able to be ordained bishop, and for an anachronism to be consigned to history. For that to happen completely, it is absolutely right that women bishops are fully represented in all levels of society, parliament and the Church, and I look forward very much to seeing that happen."

If passed, the Bill, first mooted by bishops in April (News, 11 April, 2014), will mean that, for a period of ten years, the most senior eligible female bishop will fill any vacancy that arises on the Bishops Bench, in preference to the most senior eligible male bishop. An explanatory note attached to the Bill states that, unless the law is changed, it would take "some years" before a newly-appointed female diocesan bishop were eligible.

Under the current law, the two Church of England Archbishops and 24 of its other diocesan bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, as the Lords Spiritual. Five are summoned automatically, on the basis of the sees they occupy (Canterbury, York, Durham, London and Winchester).  The remaining 21 are summoned on the basis of seniority: how long they have been a diocesan bishop.

This Bill enables women diocesan bishops to skip the queue - currently 14 bishops long.

On Thursday, a statement from the campaigning grop WATCH said that it had "always campaigned for women and men to be bishops on equal terms, including as members of the House of Lords.

"Sometimes, however, equality is so far distant that some speeding up is necessary to make it happen within a reasonable time frame. . .

"The Bill recognises the fact that for the first diocesan bishops who are women, this hasn't been a level playing field, and they will not have had the same opportunities historically to be able to fulfill their full and true callings."

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, who is convenor of the bishops in the House of Lords, said that women bishops would "enrich and strengthen our voice in the House of Lords".

Sir Tony Baldry MP, Second Church Estates Commissioner, expected a  "widespread welcome" for the legislation.

The change in the law was requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, after consultation with Bishops. His request was welcomed by the leaders of all the three main political parties. It was introduced in the House of Commons by Sam Gymiah, the parliamentary secretary of the Cabinet Office.

If no female diocesan is waiting, male bishops will continue to enter the Lords on the basis of seniority.                                

Provided that it is granted Royal Assent before Parliament is dissolved on 30 March, the Act will come into force on the day Parliament first meets after the general election.    

The last Bishop to enter the House of Lords was the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, on 8 December.  

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