Reforming the House of Lords: a review

I’ve been very pleased to see my review of a recent history of the movement to reform the House of Lords appear over at Reviews in History. If you were to read the whole thing, you would see that I thought the book, by Peter Dorey and Alexandra Kelso, at once interesting, useful and convincing.

There was one major omission: of any consideration of the position of the bishops in the Lords, save for a single paragraph. In the review, I wrote:

One surprising omission (for this reviewer) is any extended consideration of the position of the Lords Spiritual: that subset of the bishops of the Church of England who sat in the House as of right. Had this book appeared in 1981 or 1991, the neglect of the issue would have been of a piece with a general sense of the irrelevance of religious history more generally. However, the last few years have seen an upsurge in debate about the place of the religious in public life, including the House of Lords, which featured in debates preceding the 2010 election; and as such the issue probably merited more than the single paragraph that it receives here. It is perhaps an opportunity missed, as the development of the various arguments either in favour of or opposed to the presence of the Lords Spiritual mirror wider issues regarding the Lords in general. In the earlier part of the century, the bishops were viewed in much the same way as the hereditary peers: representatives of the immutable order of society; the establishment of the Church just as inevitable and right as the class system. Over time, and particularly in the 1960s, as the moral law was reformed in such a way as to emphasise the widening gap between state and church, the bishops’ own view of their position shifted, as did that of those observing them. Mirroring the advent of the life peers, the bishops became, as it were, Life Peers Spiritual: in the House not simply, or even mostly, by virtue of their historic office but also now on grounds of religious expertise. The bishops came to view themselves as representing a religious mode of viewing public affairs; and it is striking that there has been no consistent pressure from either the other Christian denominations or from other faith groups for parallel representation. Whilst a number of non-Anglican Christian leaders did become life peers, Donald Soper (Methodist, 1965) and George Macleod (Church of Scotland, 1967) among them (both Wilson nominees, and both reputed to be on the left), the bishops came to be seen in their standing role as defenders of all faiths, rather than simply of the Church of England alone.

Since reading the book, and writing the review, it has become yet more clear to me that the influence of the bishops in Parliament, and public perceptions of their role, have been rather neglected by scholars so far; both ecclesiastical historians and scholars of parliament and politics. One can glean a certain amount from the many and various biographies of the bishops, but little on the wider issues involved.

I’ve just begun to gather some material together on the bishops in the Lords in the mid-to-late 1960s, and on the involvement of the Church in shaping the abortive 1969 Parliament (No. 2) Bill. Some of this material is likely to feature in my forthcoming book on Michael Ramsey [UPDATE: it did – see details of the book; but I have a hunch that there is a separate article to be written as well.