Rowan WilliamsNo one can underestimate the tenacity of the bishops, or Lords Spiritual as they are known, in the House of Lords. There have been bishops in the Lords since the 14th century. They were excluded during the English Civil War in 1642, only to come back in 1661. 

Although MPs voted in favour of a 100 per cent directly-elected second chamber by 113 votes in 2007, the Church of England lobbied hard to stay in the Lords. In its submission to a White Paper introduced by the Labour government, it argued that a fully elected house would reduce the quality and independence of debate.

After the AV referendum on 5 May, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will introduce plans to retain most of the bishops in a reformed upper house. This will please the bishops no end. The former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, who was appointed a peer after retiring at 70, having previously served as one of the Lords Spiritual, has said, “It is worth keeping the bishops [in the new assembly] because they act as a symbol of the Queen in Parliament under God. We say a prayer to indicate that Parliament is accountable not only to the electorate but to God”. He has long argued that the bishops bring a moral dimension to the house. Secular campaigners such as Evan Harris, the former Vice Chair of the All Party Humanist Group, have pointed out that other peers have their own values as a reference point.

The bishops will have even more of an influence in the revised house. The current 750 members of the Lords will be cut to a 300-member assembly. Although 80 per cent of this new house will be elected, 16 of the current 26 bishops will have unelected places. The percentage of bishops in the new house will rise from around three per cent to just over five. 

Other faiths will also want to bring moral dimensions to the new house. The Wakeham Report on the reform of the House of Lords, published in 2000, advised having representatives of other churches and other faiths. This was the course recommended this week by the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and David Cameron is said to view the idea favourably.

These are concessions Clegg seems willing to consider. “I am a supporter of a fully elected House of Lords,” he has argued, “but I have always said if we want to prevent the fate of previous attempts to reform the [Lords] we shouldn’t make the best the enemy of the good”.

Meanwhile, the influence of the Church would seem to extend to the very groups campaigning for parliamentary reform. The president of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), which has argued for around 20 per cent of unelected members in a reformed chamber, is the Rt Reverend Colin Buchanan, a former bishop of Woolwich. Although he claims not to be representing the Church in his role, he is in favour of keeping bishops in the new assembly. He was voted in as president by the society’s 2,000 members, who presumably might have guessed at where he stood on Lord’s reform. Alongside Buchanan, the Rt Reverend Peter Dawes, a former Anglican bishop, was voted onto the council of the ERS. The ERS’s commercial arm, Electoral Reform Services, currently holds the contract to handle the elections for the Church of England’s Synod vote.

With a “No” vote increasingly probable in the AV referendum, reforming the House of Lords before the next general election will be very important to Nick Clegg, and the need for him to compromise means it is unlikely that the Church of England will lose its prized parliamentary seats in the near future. The bishops will remain, and will likely continue their attempts at blocking overdue social legislation. All 26 of the Lords Spiritual turned out to vote against the Assisted Dying Bill in 2006, contributing to its defeat, while opposition from bishops disrupted the eventual passage of the Equality Act last year. And for evidence of the Church’s enduring political influence, look no further than the recent discussions over reforming the law of primogeniture, which currently ensures that it is the eldest son, and not daughter, of the monarch who succeeds to the throne. Despite a groundswell of support for change in light of the royal wedding, the government looks set to reject reform due to the Church’s unease at any tampering with the Act of Settlement, which guarantees its position as England’s established religious body.

Yet despite the disappointment for humanists, it may be that the atheist Nick Clegg has played the smart card. When the Labour Government sought to banish the hereditary peers from the house, it had to settle for ejecting 90 per cent of the aristocrats. When the Coalition Government passes the legislation for the reform of the Lords, there will barely be a whimper as the remaining 92 hereditaries leave. With weekly Church of England attendances already well below one million, in 20 or 30 years’ time perhaps the bishops will be easier to deal with.