Woolf Institute, Cambridge

Calls to cut number of bishops in House of Lords to make way for other faiths

Mon 07 Dec 2015
By Aaron James

A landmark review into the place of Christianity and other religions in Britain has recommended some Anglican bishops should be removed from the House of Lords to make room for other faiths.

Specifically, the Commission on Religion and Public Life called for the number of bishops to be cut from 26 to 16, to allow clerics from other major religions in Britain to be represented, as well as other strands of the Church currently which are excluded, such as the Roman Catholic Church and Black-majority churches.

The Commission is the first of its kind and took two years to compile. The commissioners involved, a third of whom were Christians, went across the UK canvassing opinions on how to adequately include different religions, and people with no religion, in modern Britain.

The review was launched on the back of three major changes since the Second World War:

  1. A significant increase in the number of people identifying themselves as having 'no religion';
  2. A significant increase in the proportion of people practising faiths different to Christianity, and;
  3. A significant change in the diversity of the British Church, where Anglicans and Methodists have declined while Black-majority churches, Evangelicals and Charismatic and Non-Denominational churches have increased.

It made a number of other proposals, including:

  • Scrapping compulsory Christian worship at schools
  • Reducing the number of school admissions based on a child's faith or religious background
  • Making national events more inclusive of other faiths, for example the Coronation
  • Making religious programming more representative of British society, including other religions and atheists on Thought of the Day and Songs of Praise
  • Religious education to be compulsory in all schools, and for this to reflect other religions and atheism better
  • Promoting better understanding of all religions in the media and wider society.

Rt Revd Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford and now peer, told Premier it "doesn't bother me at all" that the number of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords could be cut.

He continued: "I believe that Jesus is Lord and Saviour of the whole cosmos... But we live on Earth in a very diverse society, we also have to work to find those areas of commonality with other people.

"It's [the report] certainly not trying to take Christianity out of public life and public consciousness, but we are reflecting the fact that up to half of the population now say they have no religion.

"If we're wanting a society in which everybody feels truly home, our public events must be symbolised in a slightly different way.

Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a Christian, former senior judge and chair of the Commission, told Premier: "I would not have put my name to this if I thought it was in any way likely to diminish the importance of Anglicanism and indeed the Christian religions.

"They remain enormously important. We still have 40% of people who for one way or another say that they are Christian.

"I would fight to support the Anglican religion in this country."

The Church of England welcomed some aspects of the review, but also said: "We are however disappointed that the report misunderstands the role of Church of England schools in providing a rounded education to more than a million pupils from all backgrounds as part of our commitment to the common good.

"If there is a significant problem with our schools it is that many of them are so popular that they are oversubscribed and not every parent who wants to can send their children to one.
"The report also misunderstands collective worship in schools. We believe that if the law on collective worship were repealed schools would risk losing this vital element of shaping a community that reflects the full breadth of human experience.

"We know, for example, that the response of many schools to the horror of the Paris attacks will have been in the context of collective worship.
"The report is dominated by the old fashioned view that traditional religion is declining in importance and that non-adherence to a religion is the same as humanism or secularism.
"In a fortnight where we have seen overwhelming public support for the Church of England over the Lord's Prayer cinema advert, it is important to remember that most public opinion is strongly opposed to the marginalisation of Christianity."

The Evangelical Alliance, present at the review's launch in Portcullis House in Westminster, expressed regret that it was not included in the group of commissioners who compiled the findings and recommendations, given that it represents more than two million Christians in Britain.

The commissioners said they included a wide range of evangelical views as they collected evidence from Christians across Britain.

It said in a statement: "The Evangelical Alliance welcomes the call in this report for government to acknowledge and embrace authentic plurality.

"Some suggestions in the report, particularly in relation to education, could be interpreted as reflecting a distinctly secular perspective and need clarifying, because there is no such thing as secular neutrality. It's a myth.

"Effective democracy, substantive human rights and liberty are intractably linked to the Bible and the Christian faith.

"If we want to continue to enjoy the fruits of our culture, as a society we will need to continue to tend, or at the very least acknowledge, the roots of our culture."

Listen to Premier's Aaron James speaking to Rt Revd Lord Harries here:

Listen to Premier's Aaron James speaking to Baroness Butler-Sloss here:

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