Although it has been disestablished in Wales and Northern Ireland, the Anglican Church is still the state church of England. We wish to see it disestablished. Continuing establishment gives rise to and allows many of the inequalities and instances of discrimination we detail in our ‘Education’ and ‘Human Rights and Equality’ sections.
Disestablishment would include a separation of church and state so that the Head of State is not also Head of the Church of England, and an end to other constitutional entanglements between the state and the Church.
Bishops in the House of Lords
Secularism would also require an end to Bishops sitting as of right in the House of Lords and a substantial reduction in permissible discrimination based on religion or belief.
The UK is the only democratic country in the world to give seats in its legislature to religious representatives as of right. This is not just a harmless legacy of a medieval constitution but a present example of discrimination, religious privilege and undemocratic politics. It survives in spite of the Church of England commanding little public support, with only 23% of the population professing to affiliation according to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey (and of this number, half never attending church).
The presence of Church of England in the House of Lords entrenches a privileged position for one particular branch of one particular religion. This cannot be justified in today’s society, which is not only multi-faith but increasingly non-religious. It is at odds with the aspiration for a more legitimate and representative second chamber and with affirmation of a plural society.
We have long argued for the removal of the right of Bishops to sit in the House of Lords, especially since the prospects for reform became (slightly) greater in 2002, and the public are strongly on our side in wanting to remove this religious privilege. An ICM survey conducted on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in March 2010 found that 74% of the British public – including 70% of Christians – believe it is wrong that Bishops have an automatic right to a seat in the House of Lords. The Lord Chancellor’s 2002 consultation showed a similar pattern of responses: (56% wanted no Bishops, and 15% wanted them only as individual appointments through the appointments procedure
Most recently, in 2011, the government proposed to retain a (proportionately greater) number of seats for Church of England Bishops in a smaller, partially appointed chamber. It also proposed to give the Church of England new powers to choose which bishops represent the Church, and to exempt those Bishops from provisions which would apply to other members, including those on expulsion and suspension, creating a new, independent and largely unaccountable bloc for the Church of England in our parliament. Thousands of members of the public protested by writing to their MP and the minister then responsible for Lords Reform Nick Clegg.