Postcard from London

Invariably retiring Archbishops of Canterbury and York are honored with a seat in the House of Lords. It’s rare, however, for other retired bishops to be so elevated. Last week the Prime Minister’s office announced that the Rt. Rev. and Rt. Hon. Richard Chartres, who retired as 133rd Bishop of London in March, is to be a life peer. He will sit on the House’s cross benches.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, welcomed the news: “It is wonderful to hear that Richard Chartres will be returning the House of Lords. His deep wisdom, experience, and integrity were greatly valued during his two decades on the Bishops’ benches.”

Chartres said he hoped “to continue to speak up for the causes important to London and beyond, contributing to a new chapter — without, of course, treading on my successor’s toes.”

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In recent memory, only two rank and file retired bishops were made Lords. Richard Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford (1987 to 2006), was highly regarded as an ethicist. David Sheppard, former Bishop of Liverpool (1975-97) and an England test cricket captain, was a significant voice on behalf of people from deprived inner-city areas. The former Irish Primate Robin Eames, who played a heroic role during Northern Ireland’s troubles, is a life peer.

Chartres’s status as a life peer places him in a different category from the 26 senior Church of England bishops who are designated “Lords Spiritual.” They cease holding that office on retirement. Under recent rules, retired bishops who are life peers may stand down. This is the case of John Habgood, who was Archbishop of York (1983 to 1995).

There are five senior bishoprics — Canterbury, York, London, Durham, and Winchester — in which incumbents automatically become Lords Spiritual. As vacancies occur, the remaining 21 are promoted on seniority of consecration. A recent change in the law paved the way for women to be fast-tracked into the Lords: so far Rachel Treweek (Gloucester) and Christine Hardman (Newcastle). Lords Spiritual occupy two benches next to the throne on the government side of the House.

Speeches by bishops need not be confined to church affairs. All parliamentary speeches are reproduced verbatim and votes are recorded in a publication known as Hansard, which appears online and in book form. Thus there is complete transparency for the actions of bishops in the House. In the cut and thrust of debate, peers do not spare bishops when they disagree. Measures (major policy changes) passed by the General Synod must be approved =in both the House of Commons and the Lords.

The Rt. Rev. David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham, currently coordinates the work of Lords Spiritual. Staff specialists at Church House Westminster provide a civil service to bishops in the House, researching policy issues and helping prepare speeches and questions. The position of bishops as Lords Spiritual has evolved. There is talk from time to time about reducing the number of bishops in the House, but this has not gained traction.

Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and Wales meant bishops from these provinces ceased to be Lords. The Bishop of Sodor and Man has never sat in Westminster, although he has a prominent place in the local parliament (Tynwald). The Church of Scotland has never been represented of right, but occasionally Scottish clerics have become life peers. There are Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim peers but they are not members by right.

The most radical changes to the role of the Church of England within Parliament occurred during King Henry VIII’s s dissolution of monasteries. Until that time, Lords Spiritual included abbots (Scots as well as English) and they outnumbered the Lords Temporal. Between 1536 and 1540, however, the king removed the seats of the abbots. Thereafter, Lords Spiritual formed a minority in the House of Lords.

John Martin

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