Secularists need to tread carefully on female bishops
When the Church of England’s General Synod vote on permitting female clergy to become bishops fell short of the necessary majority (as discussed ad nauseam in previous posts), a number of people asked why an apparently sexist and discriminatory organisation should hold a privileged place at the heart of our society, even being granted a substantial presence in the House of Lords.
That’s a fair question, and a useful way of highlighting the constitutional peculiarities of having an established church, but it would be very easy to take that line of argument too far. There is a campaign at the moment to drum up further support for a petition calling for the removal of the CofE’s presence in the Lords on the basis of the church’s (current) position, in a push towards 100,000 signatures, but I think this is a mistake.
Naturally, it’s reasonable to expect that places in the upper house won’t be handed to members of a body which defies society’s basic principles of equality. At the very least, we should question a system where discrimination on the grounds of sex is prohibited, yet certain groups can not only freely discriminate but even have an unelected presence in the parliament that passed the prohibition. But raising the objection in this way is a risky move.
The phrasing of the petition implies that the Lords Spiritual are a problem solely because the CofE has a rather relaxed attitude to sexual equality, and that their position would otherwise be fine. So when the church finally gets around to permitting women to be promoted, as it surely will eventually, this will amount to an implicit endorsement of the establishment of the church and its right to speak and vote on legislation.
If the cause of secularism is to be advanced, it’s important to ensure that the arguments against sectarian privilege in parliament are made on the broad principles, rather than the detail of specific positions. Otherwise, the argument for secularism runs the risk of being perceived as a moan about a particular policy, or even opportunistic exploitation of a group’s unpopularity. Above all, the case for a secular society would become dependent on the current views of certain groups.
Parliament is full of people with different views, including many who hold opinions at least as discriminatory as the church, but I don’t believe that should be sufficient to expel anyone from parliament. Of course, there are clear reasons why the Lords Spiritual are different, but they need to be stated. And those reasons are the important, enduring secular arguments, so why not start with them in the first place?
In attempting to point out (and possibly exploit) this bizarre situation, the petition inadvertently shores up the church’s claim to places in the Lords as long as they clean up their act. Using such an unpopular position in this way may be a clever short-term tactic, but it’s a poor long-term strategy.