A bill to remove Church of England Bishops from the House of Lords is currently making its way through Parliament. The House of Lords (Removal of Bishops) Bill was introduced by Liberal Democrat peer Lord (Dick) Taverne, and was drafted with the assistance of the National Secular Society, of which Lord Taverne is an honorary associate. Their objective is to end the automatic right of 26 Anglican Bishops and Archbishops to legislate in the UK:
It is very kind and generous of them to permit the Bishops to continue leading prayers.
Lord Taverne reasons:
One of the great achievements of the enlightenment was the separation of church and state. Theocracies in which religion is still part of the state – hardly shining examples of democracy and the protection human rights – show how important this achievement was. Although the bishops are liberal minded by comparison, the influence of the Church of England, despite the steep and ongoing decline in the number of Anglicans, should not be underestimated. And the separation of church and state is far from complete in the UK. The continued presence of bishops in the Lords is an anachronism that should be addressed.
Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of the NSS, adds:
The fact that 26 Church of England bishops are afforded an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords is unjustifiable. Giving representatives of one religion a privileged position in the legislature undermines the principle of equal citizenship and puts those who oppose the church’s positions at a disadvantage in the democratic process. Dick Taverne’s bill would strike a blow for fairness, equality and democracy, and we urge parliamentarians to show their support for it.
This isn’t the first time an attempt has been made to remove the Lords Spiritual from Parliament, and it won’t be the last. But this one will fail for one simple reason which Lord Taverne and the NSS appear to have overlooked.
The Church of England is Established: Parliament continues to legislate for it. In this Erastian settlement, the Bishops are fully participant. If they are removed from the House of Lords, it is inconceivable that Parliament would continue to legislate for it, and equally inconceivable that the church would continue to submit its own legislation to Parliament for approval. Presumably, therefore, the role of the Second Church Estates Commissioner (currently Andrew Selous MP) would be abolished. This would involve revisiting the the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, also known as the ‘Enabling Act’. Lord Taverne’s Bill doesn’t even mention this. It is important because bound up in this are not only the rights of the Bishops to sit in the legislature, but the constitutional rights of the people under the aegis of the temporal and spiritual care of the Queen, who is Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The interests of Church and State are conflated in the person of the Queen: the removal of the Bishops from the House of Lords would precipitate if not amount to the disestablishment of the Church of England.
Lord Taverne (and the NSS) would no doubt cheer this on. But they haven’t reckoned with the Coronation Oath Act. In 1953 the Queen was asked:
Archbishop. Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
To which she responded:
Queen. All this I promise to do.
You may quibble with her apprehension of the Laws of God and her reification of the the true profession of the Gospel. And you may cavil at what she may understand as the Protestant Reformed Religion and whether or not she has maintained this to the utmost of her power (whatever that utmost may be). These are matters of fierce theological dispute and individual Christian conscience. But on the question of her pledge to preserve the “rights and privileges” of her Bishops, there is no latitude. 26 of them sit in the House of Lords by virtue of constitutional right and ecclesial privilege. In the (highly unlikely) event that Lord Taverne’s Bill should progress through all its parliamentary stages (let’s be honest: Boris Johnson is not going to hurl Bishops into the Brexit morass), the Queen would be asked to give her assent to legislation which would require her to break her Coronation Oath, which she swore on pain of divine wrath. From this oath no earthly power can absolve her. By virtue of this oath it is not in her power to nullify the rights and privileges of the Bishops of the Church of England. And yet: “BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty… to break her own most Excellent Oath.”
‘When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee‘ (Deut 23:21).
Church of England Bishops will not be removed from the House of Lords while this Servant Queen yet reigns. She will not be the Monarch who goes down in history as granting her assent to the disestablishment of the Church of England.