As the UK Parliament makes headlines across the world for its debates on Brexit – the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, we republish this feature by Bernadette Kehoe, first published in the September 2017 edition of Anglican World magazine, which highlights the work of Church of England bishops in the upper chamber – the House of Lords.
Two statues of the bishops who are known to have been present when the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215 look down as sentinels from a great height, over the upper chamber of the United Kingdom’s parliament, the House of Lords. The stone mitres are a reminder that the unelected upper house was formed by a coming together of religious leaders and landed gentry, known respectively, as the Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal.
These days the Lords Spiritual comprise 26 bishops of the Church of England. They read prayers before daily business and contribute to the scrutiny of proposed legislation that has been approved by the lower house, the House of Commons. Anglican World accompanied the Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, on a day when he was taking part in a debate on the recent Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s forthcoming legislative programme.
Inside the robing room, Bishop Christopher prepares for his session in the chamber; amid the pomp and splendour of the House of Lords, with its magnificent architecture, stained glass, splendid art and sumptuous furnishing, I wonder how all this fits with a Bishop’s ministry as a shepherd to his flock? Bishop Christopher explains that he sees this aspect of his ministry as an important way of contributing to British public life. Bishops also speak in relation to their links with overseas churches. Bishop Christopher has spoken in the chamber on the Holy Land and Zimbabwe; he makes annual visits to the dioceses of Manicaland, Matabeleland, Central Zimbabwe and Masvingo which are linked with the Diocese of Southwark and its cathedral.
On the day of the Queen’s Speech debate, which opens a new session of parliament, he doesn’t shirk difficult issues – addressing the recent “calamity and terror” in Manchester and London which left scores dead and dozens injured. Bishop Christopher’s cathedral was at the epicentre of the London Bridge attack and was closed temporarily in the aftermath. Talking of the values that underpin British society, he welcomed but asked questions about a recently announced government “Commission for Countering Extremism” which will “defend pluralistic values across all our communities.”
“I think, my Lords, one needs to be clearer in defining what is meant by ‘pluralistic values.’ If, my Lords, we mean a framework that encourages those with differing beliefs and views to live in harmony and mutual respect, that is something which bishops will support. If it means everything is relative and there are no core common values or that absolute values are discouraged, then I think we have gone too far.”
The Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, speaking in the House of Lords in March 2019.
Bishop Christopher said he understood the desire for a review of counter-terrorism but felt “the emphasis may be in the wrong place” – and he argued that the answer to recent outrages was “diligence, the resources to deliver such vigilance and a society resilient enough to face down the threat of hatred.” He also commented on the deadly tower block fire in London – and noted that there had been recent “significant reductions” in the funding of fire and emergency planning services as well as police numbers:
“My Lords, these services upon which our well-being and upon which our very lives depend, often operate to the limits of their capacity. We must take responsibility to ensure that they are not pushed beyond the limits of capacity.”
A few minutes later, as we left the chamber, Bishop Christopher’s speech attracted a favourable reaction on Twitter from the former Leader of the opposition Labour party in the House of Lords.
This prompts me to ask Bishop Christopher how difficult it is to not take political sides? “It is not difficult at all,” he replies. “I have 33 years’ experience as a parish priest and in cathedral ministry, as an archdeacon and a bishop. I have related and ministered to an enormous range of people of goodwill who entertain a considerable variety of opinions. I have no desire to exhibit a partisan approach but I am passionate for justice and the flourishing of all the children of God.”
Previous speeches indicate his concern over the plight of child refugees in Calais and of Palestinian children. So has being able to speak out in this political context made a difference? “It makes a difference because a Church of England bishop is part of the establishment, perhaps, although I do not care for that term – and also part of an international body which operates relationally.
We are listened to both because our fellow peers, including Ministers believe we understand them, but also because we have experience from our local diocesan contexts spread across the country – as well as through our links overseas of what is happening at a very local level and more globally. The wider Church enables that to happen, as well as being a great blessing to me personally.”
I ask Bishop Christopher what aspects of being a Lord Spiritual he has found most surprising – and also frustrating: “‘Surprising’ would be too strong a word, but the readiness of other peers to hear what the Church has to say and to seek advice outside the chamber. Frustrating: having a limited amount of time to develop a line of argument.”
Secular voices argue strongly that the Lords Spiritual are anachronistic but Bishop Christopher says history can’t be ignored: “The Archbishop of Canterbury has said it is a great privilege to have a voice and a seat in the second chamber as a bishop; we should make our presence felt and engage seriously for as long as we remain a welcome presence. Secularism is fairly strong in this country, but the majority of the population still identify themselves as Christian. Other faith groups welcome our presence in the Lords.
“It may seem unusual to have an assembly with designated members from an established church: our absence would not exclude a Christian world-view, but our being there does guarantee it. We are here because Parliament was not founded in, for example, 1970. It is the collective wisdom of many generations that allows us to sit where we do. But I am very mindful that members of the House of Commons get there by election and the predominance of the elected house should not be challenged.”
Reform of the House of Lords has been discussed by successive British governments for more than a century. The most recent proposals, in 2012, called for a mostly elected chamber and also outlined a reduction in the number of bishops who would be allowed to sit in the Lords. But the legislation was never introduced. Whilst secularists argue that religious leaders have no place in a modern legislature, the Church of England’s official line is to give a robust defence of the Lords Spiritual: “Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House and, while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians. . .
"Bishops seek to walk the way of Christ in the precincts of Parliament and will deal with other members of the Lords on that basis, not least in private conversation and with parliamentary staff likewise. They remain a distinct and particular witness in one of the oldest legislatures in the world.”