Women Bishops in the House of Lords

I am grateful to hear the announcement that we will be fast-tracking women Bishops, below is an article I wrote for The House Magazine in Novenber 2013, please do have a read.

“The longer the Anglican church keeps women Bishops out of the Lords, the more it stands to lose”

Soon it will be Synod and our vexed issue of Women Bishops will be discussed yet again. I say “our” deliberately and in the widest sense of the word.   For nearly a century women have been members of parliament and for over 50 years Life Peers. The Anglican log jam affects the composition of the upper house, the nation’s legislature. Unfortunately even if there was a miracle and the legislation allowing Women Bishops were approved this month there will still be a long wait to see a woman Bishop in the Upper Chamber.

Parliament has been incredibly patient with the Established Church whose 31 “representatives” in the House of Lords (26 serving and 5 former Bishops and Archbishops) are the only all male group. It has not always been this way, as the church was actually pioneering in the promotion of women, as the writ of summons to Parliament in the 14th century went to landowners, this included women who were abbesses.

Parliament’s help might be needed to ensure that the first woman Diocesan Bishop comes immediately to the House of Lords. At present, only the five historic dioceses (Canterbury, York, Durham, London and Winchester) come into the Lords as of right and a vacancy is unlikely in the near future. The remaining 21 places are filled in order of length of service by other Diocesan Bishops. I believe many of them held off retiring, awaiting what they expected to be a successful outcome in last year’s vote on women Bishops. So there has been a recent clutch of retirements and around half of these 21 Bishops are coming in the House in 2013-2014. This means the time period from a successful Synod vote to a woman being the longest serving Bishop and coming into the Lords could be 2019/2020.   This is far too long.

The strength of feeling amongst Members I think took the church by surprise when the vote went against Women Bishops. A colleague who attended the Bishops meeting in Parliament, after the vote, estimated that 100 MPs and Peers were there and many were furious. Talk of parliament legislating was in the air. Although church legislation still has to come through parliament, to my knowledge the reverse of Parliament initiating legislation for church governance does not occur. It is a rubicon the Anglican church understandably does not want Parliament to cross but the solution is in their hands. Surely the legislation to bring in women Bishops will include an amendment to the Bishoprics Act 1878 to put the first woman Bishop immediately into the House of Lords. If it does not parliament may well act.

Should the unthinkable happen and the vote go against women Bishops again in 2015 then I fear that only the immediate creation of non diocesan Bishops in the Lords will salvage their place. As the Upper House has many informally titled “working peers” such non diocesan Bishops would be “working Bishops.”   They could have a specialist portfolio like International Development supporting the work of Christian Aid. This would neatly side step the church governance issue and is not without precedent as there is again a Bishop at Lambeth.

I declare my vested interest as a member of an Anglican Church but even my patience is wearing thin. No political party would get away with such sex discrimination in selection of members for the nation’s legislature. But it is the Anglican Church not parliament that has much more to lose as the longer women are not on the Bishops’ Benches the greater the risk eviction might be considered. As the hereditary peers can testify eviction is not without precedent.

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