“If I don’t intervene on this, then what is the point in having a voice in the upper chamber?”
Perhaps one of my most controversial “Christian political” views is that I am at best apathetic, and at worst completely against the presence of Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords. However, this week’s public debate around their role after the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out against the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill might have just changed my mind.
In a nation where secularism is increasingly viewed as the norm, and religious beliefs are increasingly viewed as unrepresentative and sometimes evil, it’s no surprise that having Christian figures in Britain’s House of Lords, formally called ‘Lords Spiritual’, has always been a point of contention. There are 26 Archbishops and Bishops currently sat in our upper chamber. Clerics in some form have always sat in the House of Lords throughout its existence, though the number of seats they have been allocated has changed over time. They lead prayers in the House of Lords before every sitting and their position reflects our uniquely Christian constitution, where the King, to whom Parliament answers to, remains our Supreme Governor of the established Church of England and “defender of the faith”.
Whilst being a sitting member of the House of Lords is a duty that comes alongside their normal role of preaching the gospel and caring for the churches in their dioceses, the Lords Spiritual still have a formal role to play in how the UK writes its law and governs our nation. Their presence is supposed to provide a voice for all people of faith and to keep spiritual matters on our political agenda. They also serve as a reminder that while Parliamentarians may be in positions of authority and power, they still serve under God, ruler of all creation.
However, my ongoing frustration with the presence of the Lords Spiritual is their silence. In response to being critiqued for speaking, they have chosen to be silent.
Therefore, it came as a great surprise to me that the Archbishop of Canterbury chose to make the Illegal Migration Bill his exception. This is the first time that Archbishop Justin Welby has given a speech on a Bill in three years. You may wonder if he votes rather than speaks, but sadly this is also not the case. Despite votes occurring an average of three times per week in the House of Lord, Archbishop Justin Welby voted twice in the entirety of 2022.
Though his speech has received great criticism, see here for examples of critique from Christians and from non-Christians, it is an encouragement that clergy of his status are speaking up once more. Part of the reason that quotes such as “the unelected archbishop should stick to religion and keep out of politics” from Conservative MP James Daly has gained so much traction, is because the Archbishop and the remaining Lords Spiritual so rarely speak at all.
Our nation has forgotten what it is like to hear moral and spiritual arguments used for modern legislation. We have become like those Paul warns Timothy about in his second letter - “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
This is not to say that the Archbishop’s speech was the epitome of the gospel, not at all. Rather, people across our nation have grown so used to hearing secular arguments alone. The very idea of using words such as “morally unacceptable”, or even quoting scripture in our Houses of Parliament as a legitimate source, has become so rare that it is deemed wrong and unfair.
God’s Word demands a response from everyone, with Jesus warning us that for those who don’t believe, it will be extremely uncomfortable (John 3:19-20). Yet Bishops present in the House of Lords have been silent for so long that the UK has grown too familiar with darkness. This outcry against the Lords Spiritual position in the House of Lords, as opposed to the Archbishop’s actual comments, is only proof that unbelievers despise the light and prefer the darkness instead.
In her coverage of this story, Emily Maitlis imagined what it would have been like for the Archbishop of Canterbury to choose to speak on this issue. Her conclusion wasn’t that he wanted fame or wanted to critique the government for the sake of it, but rather “if I don’t intervene on this, then what is the point in having a voice in the upper chamber?”.
Though many will have varying views on what we ought to do to address migration as a policy issue, we would do well to remember that Christ is the only answer to life’s biggest questions. He ought to be spoken of in every debate and considered every time a new law is brought before our parliamentary chambers. I congratulate the Archbishop for finally finding his voice and I urge him, alongside all the Lords Spiritual, to continue to use theirs in all debates.
Although some may critique whether they have a right to influence our laws and policies, the Lord in His infinite wisdom has provided them with a seat and the constitutional authority to usher Christ into the room. It’s about time they steward this responsibility wisely and use it for His glory.