At 4.39 pm on 12 March 2007, the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford, one of the 26 bishops currently guaranteed a place in the House of Lords, rose in full ecclesiastical regalia from the bishops’ bench and began to explain to the assembled peers why he thought that any reform of the Lords must ensure a continuing place for representatives of the Church of England.

Martin Rowson's "Bishops" cartoon from New Humanist May/June 2007On the face of it, this looked like a difficult if not impossible assignment. For although many different views had already been expressed on how the Lords might be reformed, there was an emergent consensus that any such reform must not only introduce an elected element into the House but also ensure that any members who were appointed rather than elected should be carefully chosen by an independent body on the basis of their special expertise. In this context how could it possibly be argued that bishops were a special case, that they alone under any such new arrangements should retain their ancient right to automatic appointment?

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford was not, however, troubled by any such democratic concerns. He knew exactly why the Church of England bishops were a special case. “My Lords,” he began, “We on these benches accept that we have been entrusted with the spiritual well-being of this country. That is why we are here as Lords Spiritual and not peers of the realm.” And what exactly was the basis for such confidence? History. “Over many centuries,” the good bishop continued, “it has been thought and practised that, in shaping our laws and customs in the character of the governance of our country, Parliament should take account of our spiritual inheritance.”

This was, to say the least, a tendentious account of history, one that stands in direct contrast to the account of the relations between church and state held by constitutional historian David Starkey. “It wasn’t a Christian tradition that created modern Britain but the reaction against it,” he argued recently. The real origin of modernity in England was the arrival of a Dutch king, William III, in 1688. “For England now got a king who was so contemptuous of the idea of sacred monarchy that he scoffed at his own coronation, whose rituals struck him as preposterous.”

From this point on the “monopolistic claims of the Anglican church” which had first been asserted and assumed by Henry VIII were “progressively chipped away and forms of toleration and civic rights were introduced.” The lesson from history was clear, Starkey concluded. “We must regain the Enlightened confidence to put religion back in its box and assert once more that the separation of church and state is the foundation of modernity.”

Chelmsford is clearly unimpressed by any such historical perspective. “Throughout my ministry,” he told the Lords, “I have challenged what I believe to be the misguided, tired and out-of-date mantra that politics and religion should be kept apart, that the government of the country should be left to the politicians and religion to the churches and faith institutions, and they should be kept well separate.” Was there any way in which his confidence about the need to keep bishops in the house (even when unelected and not appointed by any independent body) might be undermined by the falling congregations and empty churches over which he and his fellow bishops presided? Not at all. “The 21st century,” he informed the Lords Temporal, “has seen an awakening of consciousness in public life of the importance of religion, faith and belief in the pursuit of the common good.”

Such are the threadbare, almost desperate arguments that are now being used by the Church of England to justify its continuing presence in any reformed upper house. But at least the bishops can find some consolation from a powerful and unexpected quarter. The Labour government, in its own proposals for reform, almost totally accepts their case for their retention. Its only concession to those who find the continued presence of the bishops an appalling anachronism has been to propose that their numbers be reduced from 26 to 16.

What could have possessed a modernising Labour government to even entertain the idea of special treatment for the bishops, let alone enshrine their privileged position in an otherwise reformed House of Lords? That, in essence, was the question Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris addressed to Jack Straw in a Commons debate in February this year. Astonishingly, in his reply Straw appeared to suggest that not only was the presence of the bishops desirable: it was essential for the future of the country.

He did concede that, while many European countries have a state church, Britain is an exception in allowing it political representation. But, he added, “we are also an exception in being the only country in Europe that I can think of that has survived for three centuries without a bloody revolution, occupation or the humiliation of neutrality in a just war.”

Are you sure you’re following the argument? For the last three centuries we have been the only country in Europe which affords its bishops a privileged place in the legislature. But for the last three centuries we have also been the only country in Europe which has not had to suffer a bloody revolution. Is Jack Straw suggesting that this is a logical link? Almost. We might not have a bloody revolution if the bishops were removed but there could easily be all sorts of other trouble.

“My view,” he concluded, “is that Lord Wakeham and his fellow commissioners were correct when they said: ‘While there is no direct or logical connection between the establishment of the Church of England and the presence of Church of England bishops in the second chamber, their removal would be likely to raise the whole question of the relationship between Church, State and Monarchy, with unpredictable consequences.’”

Such nebulous scare tactics cut little ice with Labour Humanist Group supporter Lord Harrison. “As a working peer in the House of Lords, I am uncomfortable with the increasingly discordant and outdated note that the phalanx of bishops of the Church of England bring to our modern discourse in the debating of the Lords. They are there by right supposedly because we are deemed to be a nation with an established Church and so they, but not any other religious representatives, or indeed anyone from the atheist or humanist congregation, alone have the right to decide the laws of this country as they pertain to you and me and the vast majority of Britons who in their daily lives profess no religion, don’t go to church or who are indifferent to the blandishments of the Church.”

Not much comfort there for the bishops, you might think. But they don’t spend all those years in seminaries for nothing. Their theological ability to prove the divinity of Christ and the validity of the resurrection can come in very useful when it comes to arguing the case for the maintenance of their own privileges. Instead of defending their religious monopoly in the Lords, the bishops have started to agree, with nods towards the new multi-faith character of Britain, that other religions should be accorded similar privileges. What the House of Lords needs, proclaim the bishops, are not fewer but more members representing religious groups.

“I fully support what was said by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford,” declared Lord Harries of Pentregarth in the same debate on Lords reform. “I urge that the statutory Appointments Commission takes very seriously the question of appointing distinguished people who can be seen in some way to be representative of Christian denominations other than the Anglican church and of other faith communities. I know that the religious dimension is not welcomed by all your Lordships, but the fact is that religion is now a major player on the public stage of both this country and the world as a whole and it is vital that voices who want to be heard are connected with this House in some way.”

A similar tack was taken by Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay. “What a boon it would be,” he enthused, “to have the Chief Rabbi or an equally authoritative voice of Judaism in our House. A statutory commission should work hard also to let more Hindu and Muslim voices be heard – and I do not believe that we have a single Sikh.” Interestingly, Lord Oakeshott then went on to reveal who had prompted this part of his speech. “I was encouraged, in church last Sunday, to make these points by a retired occupant of the Bishops’ Bench.”

Let’s make this quite clear. What is being proposed with varying degrees of explicitness is that the Appointments Commission, which would be charged with finding people of expertise to sit alongside elected representatives in the reformed House of Lords, should abandon a rigorous selection process and simply nod through a motley group of religious representatives. It’s an idea which appals David Starkey. “In the House of Lords we have the extraordinary situation where religious leaders sit ex officio in the legislature. Only one other country entertains the practice – the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now it is being suggested that because bishops are represented in the Lords, therefore rabbis, Catholic archbishops and imams should also sit there. This, in the early 21st century, is grotesque.”

It is perhaps an indication of growing nervousness that some bishops are now prepared to employ arguments for their continued presence in the Lords which directly contradict the bold statements of the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford about their vital role in maintaining the spiritual well-being of the country. Instead of stressing their central importance to the life of the nation, they try to suggest that their influence is really awfully limited. Why, they argue, should you be worried about our presence in the Lords? We’re very rarely in the House and even when we are we often fail to vote as a bloc or articulate shared opinions.

There is some truth in these claims. In recent years very few bishops have manage to attend more than one-third of the sitting days. Lambeth Palace, the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, does determine who should be the duty bishop in the Lords for the prayers which precede each session, and it also issues briefings on subjects such as education, employment and social welfare in which the Church has a special interest. But according to Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans, they are never whipped by Lambeth. They are free to speak according to their consciences, even in matters directly concerning the running of the Church.

But there are many occasions when their consciences coincide very neatly. A head count at voting time reveals that while only three Lords Spiritual turned out to vote against the Gambling Bill and the proliferation of super casinos, all 26 were on hand to vote against the Assisted Dying Bill. The notion that they lack influence on other occasions is hotly disputed by Lord Harrison. “That this block vote of 26 bishops does have influence was exemplified in a recent vote in the Lords to extend adoption rights to gays and lesbians under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations when, to a man – and they all are! – they supported opposition to this human rights measure, invoking mumbo jumbo in preference to tolerance towards fellow human beings, a quality that some of us thought was championed by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.”

One hardly needs an advanced search engine to discover examples of the “mumbo jumbo” described by Lord Harrison. Here, for example, taken from the Equality Act debate in the Lords, is the Archbishop of York displaying the art of mixing three metaphors in two sentences. “In my maiden speech in this House I expressed the fear that we run the danger of spinning the spider’s web from which institutions, groups of civil society and members of local communities stood little chance of escaping. It now seems that a legal sausage machine is being created by the regulations requiring all of us to go through it and come out the other end, sanitised and with our consciences surgically removed”.

But this sort of nonsense should not obscure the important point that Lord Harrison is making about the influence of the bishops. Any idea that this is a waning force has recently been given the lie. According to new research by the public theology think tank Theos, bishops are now attending more debates than before and increasing their levels of active participation. In the 2004/05 session they voted in over half of the divisions compared with just above 20 per cent in the 1980s. And whereas they made 64 contributions per session during the 1980s, in 2005/6 they made a total of 130 separate speeches and interventions. The director of Theos was delighted with such clear evidence of the manner in which bishops were now beginning to exert more political influence and looked forward to even greater involvement. “The report encourages those serving as religious representatives in a reformed second chamber to consider how they can bring a distinct moral and spiritual contribution to political debate.”

Despite all the arguments against their continuing privileged position in the Lords there is little sign that the sitting bishops are feeling much wind under their cassocks. Individual members of the Lords who have spoken to me frequently refer to the sense of pompous security they evince even during debates about their future. One member who modestly criticised their presence in a recent debate told me that the bishops now either go out of their way to avoid him or subject him to pitying glances.

Lord Harrison has observed other disturbing signs of their constitutional arrogance. “I would be convinced more of the necessity of retaining the 26 Church of England bishops if they practised what they preach in a more consistent manner in the chamber itself. Despite their enjoinders to the rest of us to aspire to the virtue of humility, it is a regular occurrence in Lords debates for the good prelates to out-face and out-stare others who wish to speak by remaining standing until any other unfortunate Lord wishing to speak is cowed into sitting down by the chorus from the supporters of the clerics to hear the Bishops first and foremost.”

Without some concerted campaign against the Government’s present surrender to the bishops’ lobby there is every sign that in years to come we will be faced with the arrival of even more religious placemen – they will always be men – in the country’s legislature. From now on, though, they will not merely be unelected, they will also have secured their place in the chamber without having to go through the independent appointments procedure which will vet all other unelected arrivals. Instead of following David Starkey’s advice and seeking to put religion back in its box we are currently encouraging its representatives to breed and multiply. ■