Postcard from London

In the United Kingdom, two seemingly unrelated topics regularly cause fractious and polarized debate, with few fresh insights into the divide between secular and religious life. The first is presence as of right of 26 bishops in the House of Lords. The second is the 2-minute, 45-second Thought for the Day heard at peak time on Today, BBC Radio’s flagship current affairs program.

First, the House of Lords: With plans in place to reduce membership of the House of Commons from 650 to 600, few disagree that the Lords with 800 members is bloated and urgently needs slimming down. Fueling debate are regular media revelations of members who make no contribution but contrive to show long enough to collect the prescribed £300 allowance for daily attendance. People become truly animated, however, about the 36 bishops (Lords Spiritual) who sit in the Lords.

A new report from a working group led by Lord Burns, ex-chairman of a national television station and the retailer Marks and Spencer, signals full speed ahead with reform. But it deftly sidesteps the issue of the bishops. Earlier in the year the National Secular Society launched a petition for their complete removal, which attracted 10,000 signatures within days.

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Lord Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, appeared lukewarm, as did Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, when asked for a defense of the status quo.

Explaining his reasoning, Lord Burns said he thought including bishops in the menu of reform legislation would prove a distraction and it could wait until the rest of the process was complete.

Now, Thought for the Day: It is a monologue, hardly in tone from the rest of Today, in which confrontation is the order of the day. It’s meant to bring a faith dimension to current affairs, with mainly Christian contributors and a sprinkling of other faiths.

Debate about the segment emerges regularly, most recently when Radio Times magazine covered the 60th anniversary of the program. It quoted John Humphrys, senior presenter, as calling Thought “deeply, deeply boring,” inappropriate in an increasingly secular society, and “only occasionally interesting.”

Somewhat colorless ripostes from church figures, including the Archbishop Justin Welby, were eclipsed by the Rev. Canon Giles Fraser, a regular on Thought. He said a “culture of sniggering contempt towards religion is endemic within the BBC. And one acceptable way of demonstrating this is to slag off Thought for the Day.”

Fraser is plain-spoken figure who resigned as a canon at St Paul’s London after a very public disagreement with the dean when protesters occupied the cathedral square in 2012. He is now vicar of an inner-city parish south of the River Thames.

On air he claimed church attendance was larger than crowds attending football (soccer), which gets more time during Today. When Humphrys questioned this, Fraser challenged him to a £5 bet. Later he confronted the BBC man with a bundle of statistics. Humphrys says his cheque is in the post.

Both Bishops in the Lords and Thought for the Day symbolize how the U.K. maintains institutions that, on the surface, seem to be anachronisms. When anyone calls for change, however, it stirs up a tempest.

John Martin

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