Last week Libby Lane became the Church of England’s first woman bishop. Bishops sit in the House of Lords. They read prayers at the start of each day meeting and play a full and active role in the upper house who can halt or hold up legislation and are in a unique position to influence our laws. So will Libby Lane be amongst them? Well, no – she won’t. The number of seats in the House of Lords is limited by statute; but there are not enough seats to provide for every bishop. The Church of England therefore offer these seats to their bishops in order of seniority. First there’s the archbishops pf Canterbury and York; then there are the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester; and the remainder of the seats available in the House of Lords are occupied by the next most senior diocesan bishops as indicated by their length of service, which are theirs until retirement (which is compulsory at 70).
So, if not now, can we look forward to a woman bishop in the House of Lords within the next five or ten years as she gains in length of service? Well, no – we can’t. This is because Libby Lane is neither an archbishop nor a diocesan bishop, but a suffragan bishop, which means that she does not have her own diocese or cathedral and cannot therefore sit in the House of Lords.
Here are some numbers: there are 37 archbishops and diocesan bishops entitled to sit in the House of Lords; but only 26 seats available to them. Additionally there 72 suffragan bishops who cannot sit in the House of Lords – no matter how long they serve. Consequently, the bishops in the House of Lords are all men between the ages of 56 and 69, which is hardly representative of the electorate and hardly the demography we would chose – were we to be given a choice.
So, rather than pinning our hopes on the Church of England to replace or remove these middle aged men, should we look to Parliament to reform the House of Lords? Well, no – we shouldn’t. The UK is the only western democracy that accommodates the church in its legislature; and naturally there are many who feel that it should not; but politicians are seeking only to reduce the number of bishops in parliament rather than remove them altogether; and even these attempts are failing. In 2007 the Labour government issued a white paper suggesting a reduction to the number of seats for bishops. In 2012 a Bill seeking, amongst other reforms, to reduce to the number of bishops in the House of Lords from 26 to 12 was debated in the House of Commons, but was withdrawn when it became clear that the bill did not have sufficient support.
I look forward to the removal of the Bishops from the House of Lords, but in the meantime I feel that the presence of women in their number would be a good thing, for all of us.