Bishops are allies to – not enemies of – progressive causes 16 December 2015

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Victoria Tower, Houses of Parliament, London, UKThe House of Lords is deeply unpopular amongst many progressives. For them, it is an archaic affront to democracy; a chamber of unelected rich people with no right to the power they possess to challenge the House of Commons and even to introduce laws.

In itself, the existence of this House is a source of indignation for many people. Exacerbating their fury is the fact that there are Bishops who share in this power – a bunch of stuffy old men (plus one woman nowadays) representing the relics of the near-extinct institution, the church – whose existence depends on a handful of people who failing to see the light that Richard Dawkins brings.

The fact that these people insist on clinging to cosmic fairytales is in itself an abomination; but the fact that they have a say in an unelected chamber adds insult to injury.

I have often found it curious that progressives are so vehemently opposed to this.

For one, it’s not as if, without the ‘Lords Spiritual’, there wouldn’t otherwise be Christians in Parliament. Two of our last three Prime Ministers have professed to be Christian, and not infrequently an MP will cite religious faith as a motivation for their views on a particular issue.

But in particular, it’s curious that progressives are so opposed to the power of Bishops, when they are so often an ally to their causes.

Consider the Bishops’ pre-election Pastoral Letter, Who is my neighbour? , calling us to recognise our bonds to our fellow citizens, lest we become a “society of strangers”. The letter was explicitly non-partisan – indeed, it was critical of all political parties – but this emphasis on community is intrinsic to the political philosophies of many on the Left (and more progressive Tories).

And repeatedly Bishops in the Lords have been part of challenging harsh welfare reforms. In 2012, their votes were part of the marginal rejection of including child benefit in benefit cuts – and more recently, they were part of the Lords vote to delay tax credit cuts.

Why are Bishops so often aligned with progressive causes? The answer for some will be that the Church of England conspires to keep only those with the correct political views at the top – namely, those on the Left. For others, it will be that Jesus was a hero of socialism and any honest Christian could only ever align themselves with these views.

But the reality is, in the most part, that Bishops – indeed all Christians – must look to their understanding of God in Jesus Christ through the Bible, Church tradition, and their reasoned reflection on experience, as their primary source of authority. When they do this, they will often find a God who has compassion upon the poor, weak and vulnerable; whose grace is disproportionate and irrational, akin to the father who hosts a banquet for a son who rejected him, or a farmer who leaves 99 sheep to search for one who’s missing.

Such grace is not specific to any political ideology or party. But the kinds of values that it suggests – justice very strongly tempered with mercy; compassion on the weak; solidarity, self-sacrifice – often lend themselves to progressive causes.

Of course, the question many will rightly raise is – what happens when Bishops vote against progressive causes, and they’re no longer an ally? After all, Bishops are crossbench and under no obligation to align themselves to a particular point on the political spectrum, and their Christian values may well lead them to conclusions that are at odds with views of those on the left.

At such times, a little personal humility is in order. Supporting the power of a person or organisation should never be dependent on them being always aligned with one’s own views. For one, it’s mathematically inconsistent; every Parliamentarian will have views that at some point differ with one’s own.

But more than this, it’s a reminder that we’re human and our knowledge is limited; our views sometimes change, and sometimes, even if they don’t, we do just get things wrong. Sometimes we’ll be right and those in power are wrong; but if their power were dependent on them being totally right all of the time, no one would be in power.

To be clear: this is neither an argument that Bishops are obliged to hold left wing views, nor an argument that their power should be dependent on them as such. But when they are aligned with such causes, it is a real benefit (dare I say blessing?) to have them challenging the Commons with the insights of Christian moral reasoning.

It is of course right that we have an elected government, and elected politicians in the Commons. But I struggle to see the harm in having their debates and Bills balanced out with the depth of knowledge and spirituality that are brought by the Lords Spiritual – depth that is often lacking in MPs, whose job demands that they are generalists.

Those on the Left should recognise their common ground with Bishops as an asset, instead of opposing them without even hearing their views.

This article is from Issue 11 of On Religion. If you enjoyed it, subscribe to our magazine for just £19 a year and help us to keep publishing.

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About Andrew Grey

Andrew Grey graduated from the University of Oxford with BA and MPhil degrees in Theology. He is a Writer and Editor at a national charity. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.