House of Lords reform? Let's start with the bishops

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation yesterday threw up some interesting synergies. Among them was news that the bloated and dysfunctional House of Lords could be cut from its present size of more than 700 to a more manageable 574 by 2027, if a committee's recommendations are accepted.

26 bishops and archbishops sit in the House of Lords.Reuters

However, that figure excludes the 26 Church of England bishops and archbishops who sit there by historic right. Hence the synergy: former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and current Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols were interviewed on Radio 4 about the Reformation, and were asked about the establishment of the Church of England. Williams said, as he has before, that while he 'wouldn't start from here', at least it gave religion a seat at the table, which was a good thing (I paraphrase). Nichols was if anything even more lukewarm, explicitly denying wanting Catholic bishops to sit in the Lords, but glad religion is still recognised as having something to contribute to the common good.

Full-blooded defenders of establishment – the status of the Church of England as the official Church of the (English) nation, with a special relationship to the state and special privileges – are few and far between. The thing is, on the face of it, anachronistic. Most people in England don't go to church, and most churchgoing Christians in the UK don't attend CofE churches. The case for privileging one religion, and one denomination of that religion, is inherently weak. Those prepared to argue for it say the Anglicans represent all the other faiths anyway, and that other religious people are glad they're there doing the heavy lifting. It's better, they say, that religion is represented at the heart of the state than that it becomes a God-free zone like France, and who better to do it than the Church of England?

It's hard to overstate how unambitious, condescending and theologically unsatisfactory is this position. Full disclosure: I'm a Baptist, and we don't believe in state churches. For all the good they sometimes do (and invariably the argument for privilege is some variation of, 'See how much we deserve it!') state churches are inevitably compromised by a too-close association with power.

However, the archbishops have a point: the cure for establishment might just be worse than the disease. Having bishops in the House of Lords doesn't really make sense in the modern world, but the fact that there are Christian voices in our second chamber is, on the whole, a good thing.

This is not, though, a situation that can endure for very long. At the moment, the life and structures of the CofE are interwoven with those of the wider state. That relationship will gradually be unpicked as the House of Commons, composed more and more of members ignorant of religion and personally uncommitted to any kind of faith, asserts its fundamentally secular character. The Lords is going to be reformed, and the bishops are vulnerable.

So here's a suggestion. Now is the time for the Church of England to take the lead in calling for a root and branch redesign of the Lords. Yes, it should definitely be smaller. And yes, it should represent as wide a spectrum as possible of the society and culture of the United Kingdom – of which religion is a large and vital part – which at present it does not. But instead of that religious representation being drawn from such a small pool of Christians, however well-intentioned they may be, it should represent the diversity of Christianity and of other faiths in our country. Christians should be appointed in consultation with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. Representatives of other faiths should be appointed after appropriate consultation. The Lords should be religiously inclusive, not an Anglican closed shop.

A self-denying campaign along these lines would at least put the initiative in the hands of the Churches rather than placing them in the position of having to defend unearned privileges when the assault comes, as surely it will. There's no case for places to be reserved in the Lords for Church of England bishops. There is a case for broader religious representation. Who better to make it than those same bishops?

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods