When the Equality Act was going through parliament last year, there was a loud chorus of condemnation for the Church of England bishops in the Lords who stood accused of attempting to undermine the Act, most particularly in its application to gay rights. The bishops by and large were trying to create some kind of privileged space for religious people in which they would be able to discriminate lawfully against gay people on the grounds of conscience. The loudest and most public of these condemnatory voices belonged to secularists, and especially atheists, who demanded to know why a group of befrocked men, who had been through no democratic process, should be permitted to intrude on public policy making on the orders of their imaginary friend. Surely such superstitious nonsense has no place in a modern democracy, and equally surely the rights of gay people in matters such as adoption or marriage should not be obstructed by middle-aged men with infantile beliefs and crudely discriminatory objectives.
Ironically, although a person of faith myself, I have more than a little sympathy with these arguments, and said so at the time. But I’m left wondering today about the dogs that haven’t barked. On this occasion the bishops are not interfering with one of the touchstones of the secularist agenda. In contrast, they are interfering in the Government’s attempts to cap benefits, and are arguing that a (presumably unintended) likely consequence of the reforms will be to push more children into poverty. But they are still marshalling their illegitimate political clout, are they not?
It is of course a crude generalisation, but the majority of the shrillest voices of secularism are on the political left. They are thus in general rather approving of the bishops’ intentions in this case, just as they were appalled and irate about those same bishops’ intentions in the case of the Equality Act. But that is neither here nor there in the dispute about Christian leaders and their supposedly privileged place in the country’s legislature.
If the argument is about secularism, and the incompatibility of democracy on the one hand and privileges for the Established Church on the other, then all episcopal interventions should be equally opposed. They are clearly not. I think that tells us quite a bit about the real issues here. My challenge to the secularists amongst my readership is this: if the bishops are to be supported when their interventions are to your taste, but vilified when those interventions are antithetical to your interests, then your argument is not one of legislative rights, but one of political judgement. By contrast, if you’re truly exercised about bishops in the House of Lords per se, then you should be as outraged today in the child poverty context as you were last year in the case of the Equality Act.
Personally, I do not object to the bishops’ role in our legislature as a matter of democratic principle. An unelected second chamber is fine by me. When I agree with the bishops, as I do now, I’m happy to support them. When I disagree with them, as I did over the Equality Act, I’ll express that, too. But I’m only entitled to this pick’n’mix approach because I don’t have a principled objection to their legislative position. If you do have such objections, then it seems to me that you are logically bound to deprecate all their interventions, regardless of your views in particular cases.