The Guardian reports that the government is considering plans for reform of the House of Lords. While the remaining 92 hereditaries are to go, the report comments:
'It is understood the main sticking points still to be overcome are over what to do about the 25 bishops in the Lords, whose removal would trigger a row with the church, and how to manage the transition to the new system.'
Polly Toynbee makes the case for the bishops' removal. Toynbee tells us that:
'Jack Straw is currently consulting on whether a guaranteed number of women and faith representatives should be included in the new senate.'
As I read the situation, it looks as if the government is considering one of those confused and unprincipled 'Third Wayish' fudges, diluting the Anglican bishops with wider representation of 'the faiths'. Will this be referred to as the 'modernisation' of faith-based representation?
Toynbee argues against a quota for faith reps on the grounds that Britain is not a society of believers, so there is something 'anomalous' about guaranteed faith representation in our legislative chamber.
That is absolutely right, but it only points to one of the problems with the idea. Who, amongst the many faith groups in our society, is to be represented? Any answer to that question will exclude some and thereby denigrate the beliefs and civic status of those citizens in the excluded groups.
So, for example, will my religious community - the Quakers - get representation? If not, then what does this say about the state's relationship to me? By including representatives of, say, Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, but excluding Quakers from guaranteed faith representation, the state in effect says: 'We the state, have more respect for Anglicanism, Catholicism etc. than we do for Quakerism. Sorry, but you Quakers must accept you are second-class citizens.'
Perhaps some will argue that Quakers will be somehow included in any 'Christian' quota. But that would be an immensely presumptuous judgment, ignoring the way that many Quakers (such as myself) do not identify as 'Christian', and that even those who do have significant theological differences with official Anglicanism and other Christian denominations.
The point, of course, is not specific to Quakers. What about Wiccans and other pagans? What about members of the British Humanist Association?
If you find youself sniggering when I mention, say, Wiccans, then shame on you - that's the problem right there, the idea that there are 'serious' religions which ought to command 'respect' and then a bunch of silly cranks with daft ideas that 'we' and/or the state can ignore. Frankly, when it comes to religion, who is 'respectable' and who is a 'crank' is very much in the eye of the beholder, and it is not something the state - as an agent of the whole people - ought to take any stand on whatsoever.
Yet any attempt to broaden faith representation out will inevitably involve someone like Jack Straw making judgments about who the 'serious', 'respectable' or 'important' faith communities are. Any such judgments will be arbitrary and send a message of contempt towards those who don't make the cut.
The government has just spent a good deal of energy imposing a duty to promote 'equality' on public bodies. Isn't it obvious that such a duty must also apply in the composition of the legislature itself? And that this must rule out any idea of guaranteed faith representation?
The egalitarian policy is clear: remove the bishops from the reformed Lords and in this way put an end to the invidious institution of guaranteed faith representation in the nation's legislature.