As the Government contemplates a multi-faith House of Lords, they retreat on the Act of Settlement
We read that the Prime Minister is considering a multi-faith House of Lords. Of course, it is Nick Clegg who is responsible for constitutional reform, but His Grace is quite certain that neither of these men actual grasps the issues or understands the complexities. The Lib Dem leader appears to believe that overseeing historic changes to the Lords will compensate for the disappointment his party will feel if his proposal to change the electoral system is rejected in the referendum on May 5. And it would be neat, coming precisely 100 years since the Parliament Act by which the Liberal Government ended the power of the House of Lords to block the annual budget. The timing and symbolism are not lost on either the Prime Minister or Mr Clegg.
But both are lost on the theo-political significance of reform.
Currently 26 Anglican bishops have seats in the Lords. The proposal is that these should be reduced and space made for other Christian denominations, in particular for Roman Catholic bishops. These would be joined by religious representatives of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
While some may observe that the House of Lords already has its self-appointed khalifa of all things Islamic, there is the thorny issue of denominational diversity within these minority faiths. Would the voice of Islam in the Lords be Sunni, Shi’a or Sufi? Should there be one of each? And what of the Ahmadiyyans? Who defines them as a sect? Where is the central Islamic authority to determine orthodoxy? Should the Sikh representative be a ‘proper’ Sikh – that is a turban-wearing, kirpan-carrying follower of the panth? Or one who takes a more relaxed view of the 5 Ks? Hinduism also has no central doctrinal authority: should their representatives in the House of Lords be adherents of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism or Smartism? Or all four? And for the Jews? The Chief Rabbi? But he does not speak on behalf all Jews. The successors to the Pharisses, Sadduccees, and Essenes are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Hasidism, and Kabbalah. Should Christian denominations be restricted to Trinitarians? What of the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
You see the problem. What the Prime Minister and his Deputy perceive to be a magnanimous act of spiritual modernity is fraught with infinite complexity: for this to be ‘fair’, the House of Lords Appointments Commission would need to be constituted of representatives from every faith also, in order that it is not seen to be a ‘hideously white’ group of Christians imposing their patronising and superficial interpretations of religious orthodoxy upon minorities. And that is not a trivial issue: the incorporation of other faiths into the House of Lords is predicated upon the State’s recognition and definition of the religious orthodoxy of each religion: essentially, they would all need to become 'established' to some extent. For if religious representaives were to be democratically elected, Lord Ahmed could easily be replaced by the likes of Abu Hamza, and then we would be praying for the restoration of the 26 Anglican bishops.
The Lords Spiritual are Anglican for a reason: they (and they alone) represent to government the via media of the nation and sustain the canopy of constitutional Christianity. There may indeed be strong arguments that our legislature might also benefit from the wisdom of leaders of Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist and black-led congregations. Religious adherence is actually a far better measure of diversity than skin colour, with which politicians on all sides appear to be obsessed.
But, as His Grace has previously observed, there is no logical end to the eradication of ‘discrimination’ in Parliament. Yet it is a superficial obsession, for it is no more difficult for an Anglican bishop to represent Muslims or Hindus than it is for an able-bodied MP to represent the disabled. One does not need to be homosexual to advocate equality and justice; and one does not need to be an alcoholic single-mother on welfare to speak against poverty and the causes of family breakdown.
There are, of course, already Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu peers in the House of Lords. The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a life peer, as is the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, a Muslim. But only a religious leader is appointed to advocate specifically on behalf their religion: there is no sense in which Baroness Warsi is the religio-political equivalent of the Chief Rabbi.
If one were to constitute the House of Commons in proportion to the religious make-up of the nation (excluding the agnostics, atheists and undeclared) it ought to contain 17 Muslims, 6 Hindus, 4 Sikhs, 3 Jews, 2 Buddhists, 465 Christians and 6 Jedi Knights (2001 census figures). With a House of Lords now significantly larger than the Commons, His Grace will leave his readers and communicants to do the math for proportionate religious representation (or wait for the 2011 census figures).
Whoever (if anyone) is advising David Cameron and Nick Clegg on these matters is simply not up to the job. Removal of any Anglican bishops would necessitate the repeal of the 1533 and 1534 Acts governing their appointment, the abolition of the homage oath, some alteration to the Coronation Oath Act and the repeal of the relevant parts of the various bishopric Acts limiting appointment maxima. Is there time for primary legislation to achieve all this? Further, they have omitted to observe that Roman Catholic ‘Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power’ (Canon 285:3). Yet, as one senior Conservative said: "It is inconceivable that we continue with a faith element to the Lords without Catholic bishops being represented.”
And neither have the politicians reckoned on the wholesale rejection by the Church of England of plans to reform the Act of Settlement 1701.
Contrary to popular belief, the Monarch is not free to be any religion or marry into any religion except the Roman Catholic one. For the Act of Settlement requires the Monarch and his or her consort to be ‘in communion with’ the Church of England. While His Grace could write more than a few pages on the meaning of ‘koinonia’ in this context, it must be noted that it is not only Roman Catholics who are prohibited by their own Magisterium from taking bread and wine in Anglican churches: Jews and Muslims would also find this unacceptable, and so adherents to many other faiths bar themselves from being ‘in communion with’ the state Church.
The Act of Settlement was forged during an era of intolerable foreign interference in the governance of England. Like Magna Carta, it is a foundational treaty between the Monarch and his/her subjects which defines our liberties and asserts our sovereign independence from all foreign princes and potentates. Its provisions are ‘for ever’: our forebears made sure it was watertight. If, indeed, Parliament once again permits the Monarch to be or marry a Roman Catholic, what will they do with the clause which states: 'in all and every such case and cases the people of these realms shall be and are thereby absolved of their allegiance'.
According to The Telegraph, the Church of England has flexed its puny muscles and found a few teeth. We read: ‘...the plan to abolish the Act of Settlement was quietly shelved after the Church raised significant objections centring on the British sovereign’s dual role as Supreme Governor.
‘Church leaders expressed concern that if a future heir to the throne married a Roman Catholic, their children would be required by canon law to be brought up in that faith. This would result in the constitutionally problematic situation whereby the Supreme Governor of the Church of England was a Roman Catholic, and so ultimately answerable to a separate sovereign leader, the Pope, and the Vatican.
‘...Mr Clegg was initially attracted to the idea of repealing the Act but is said to have been persuaded that the difficulties raised by the Anglican Church were insurmountable.
‘...A spokesman for the Anglican Church said that although the Act of Succession appeared “anomalous” in the modern world, while the Church of England remained the established religion, the monarch and Supreme Governor could not owe a higher loyalty elsewhere.
'He went on: “The prohibition on those in the line of succession marrying Roman Catholics derives from an earlier age and inevitably looks anomalous, not least when there is no prohibition on marriage to those of other faiths or none. But if the prohibition were removed the difficulty would still remain that establishment requires the monarch to join in communion with the Church of England as its Supreme Governor and that is not something that a Roman Catholic would be able to do consistently with the current rules of that church.”’
So offensive and outrageous is this that Alex Salmond has demanded an explanation from the Government. But it is only what His Grace has been saying for many years, and has frequently been called an ‘anti-Catholic bigot’ for doing so. Now it appears that the Church of England is full of anti-Catholic bigots.
Or perhaps they simply desire to sustain their liberties, customs and traditions.
His Grace would like to end with just one question for reflection and consideration: Why, at a time when the Government is downgrading religion in education and diminishing its status in the school curriculum, are they intent on enhancing it in Parliament and embedding it within the nation’s politics?