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All eyes on bishops’ benches in House of Lords as first woman takes seat

Posted on: October 26, 2015 2:37 PM
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, makes the Oath of Allegiance as she takes her seat in the House of Lords, the upper house of Britain's Parliament.

[ACNS] The first woman to sit as a bishop in Britain’s parliament has taken her seat. Bishops have played a formal part in Britain’s parliament since before the origins of democracy in the country. Initially as advisors to the Monarch, Anglican bishops now occupy 26 seats in the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords.

Five of these are reserved for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester. The remaining 21 places are usually taken by the longest serving diocesan bishops; but following the passage of legislation to allow women to be appointed as bishops, the law was changed to provide that if a vacancy occurs in the 21 places within the next 10 years, woman diocesan bishops will take precedence over male bishops.

Wearing convocation robes, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, was introduced to the House of Lords this afternoon by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. The Royal Writ from Queen Elizabeth was read before Bishop Rachel made the oath of allegiance.

The historic significance of the occasion was symbolised by a rare round of applause from other members of the House of Lords applauded as Bishop Rachel made her way to the Bishops Benches. Traditionally, new Peers are introduced and sworn in with silence; apart from a brief murmur of cheer as the new Peer shakes the hand of the Lords' Speaker.

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All eyes will be on the bishops’ benches later this afternoon when the House of Lords debate controversial cuts to tax credits – a welfare benefit paid to low paid workers with families.

The House of Lords does not have the power to oppose finance bills, as the House of Commons has the primary responsibility for budget matters. But the government is making the changes through secondary legislation using a statutory instrument. Some Peers have tabled amendments which would effectively be a fatal motion to the changes; but it is not clear how much support such a move will receive. Some Peers have said that such a move will go against the tradition that the Lords do not oppose money matters.

The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, has tabled an amendment to the government’s motion which, while not blocking the changes going through, will add that “this House regrets that the draft Regulations fail to take account of concerns about their short-term impact on working families and individuals currently receiving tax credits, and calls on the Government to consult further on the draft Regulations and revisit their impact.”

The 26 bishops in the House of Lords rarely attend at the same time. A duty bishop’s rota ensures that at least one bishop is in attendance. Other ecclesiastical members of the House of Lords will take part in debates on matters of particular interest or expertise.