Should bishops sit in the House of Lords?

That is the subject of a discussion being held, with remarakbly good timing, tonight in the Houses of Parliament by permission of the Lords’ Speaker, Baroness Hayman. Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia will be pressing the case for the prosecution, as it were. The Bishop of Leicester and Baroness Butler-Schloss will give the defence and it is chaired by David Aaronovitch.

On Monday I saw, for the first time, the Bishops in action in the House of Lords. I had the vague impression that they were, unknowingly, sort of measuring themselves up for their own parliamentary coffin. They were behaving a bit like bovver boys.  The whole debate was a farce.

But what’s come out of this for the good (bearing in mind that the “truth” of the matter has not yet come out, in my opinion, and I am still listening and reading to search for it) is that I have discovered the wonderful Guardian Cif Belief site, Ekklesia and Thinking Anglicans.

What should be stated loud and clear is that many people in the churches do not agree with the stance of the bishops on the Equality Bill.

On a separate element on Thinking Anglicans, Simon Sarmiento is absolutely brilliant in succinctly stating the legal truths of these matters. There’s a post of his here on Thinking Anglicans with an excellent comments thread. Simon makes this comment:

…the law is entirely clear with respect to bookkeepers. The law is entirely clear with respect to the clergy. Where the law is less clear is for posts that are in the middle ground, of which the “youth worker who teaches bible classes” is a favourite example.

And there you have it. The entire nub of the matter in a nutshell – despite all the whipping up of a massive “Church v State” battle by certain very small factions in the churches. Yes, the law already exists to allow churches to discriminate for (1) priests on various grounds. The law already exists  for (2) bookkeepers not to be discriminated against upon selection for employment (and thereafter). What Monday’s debate was about – or more correctly should have been about – is where you precisely draw the line between those two categories. On the more nebulous example of the youth worker who teaches bible classes, the government was quite clear that it if the youth worker mainly took bible classes and led prayers and preached, then they would fall into the (1) priests category. If they mainly organise entertainment then they would fall into category 2 – the bookeeper category. Simples. And by the way, it is even more simple that that. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that I am pretty sure that there abolutely zero youth workers in any church who mainly organise entertainment. They all lead praise, preaching, prayer or bible reading in some shape or form, normally as the largest part of their work.

Finally, let us read a quote from that beacon of legal sanity, Lord Lester, which he uttered immediately after the division on Monday:

I cannot resist making the observation that, in the Division, the Lords Spiritual managed to vote as turkeys for Christmas – if noble Lords will forgive me for saying so – by removing the new and magnanimous protection that they were given. Proportionality was taken out of the Bill, probably encouraging the European Commission to suggest that our statutory powers will infringe its own and lead to further trouble.

Equality Bill Lords debate on Hansard and 'They work for you'

Hansard now have the transcript of yesterday’s Lords debate on some Equality Bill amendments (Schedule 9). It is here in PDF format – the relevant debate starts on Page 15, which is enumerated as “1211” at the top left hand side of the page.

 They work for you have it in a format which is easier to read (no clicking “next page” necessary).

The BBC have the first two hours of the House of Lords session on iPlayer, but unfortunately it cuts out before this vital debate. I’ll keep an eye on it, and if they correct that problem, I’ll post the link here.

Two bits caught my attention when I was listening to the debate.

First there was this passage where Lord Lester said he was “appalled” at the “prelates'” apparent desire to remove the principle of “proportionality” from the wording of the bill. It was said very strongly:

The Strasbourg court has made it clear that the controlling doctrine is that of proportionality. A classic example was the case about the bar on homosexuals in the Armed Forces. Religious and other beliefs, and convictions, are part of the humanity of every individual, including atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. It is only the manifestation of religion or belief that may be subject to prescribed limits. That reflects the fact that the way that beliefs are expressed in practice is what can impact on others.

Despite the protestations made by senior clerics, including those on the Benches here, I believe that the measures in the Bill accommodate the reasonable needs of the churches and other religious organisations to manifest their beliefs and to practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs, subject to the overriding requirement of proportionality. I find it astonishing and deeply depressing that the right reverend Prelates should find the principle of proportionality-a principle which is deep in Christian ethics-to be a principle to be removed from this Bill. I am, frankly, appalled that that should be the position.

Secondly there is this passage where the Bishop opf Winchester is interrupted by the former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries with an excellent point:

Bishop of Winchester: Churches, religious organisations and charities have senior lay staff, one element of whose responsibility is to represent the convictions, character and vision of their organisations. I was glad that the noble Baroness mentioned some of those. It is a matter of great importance to us. The same is true of the senior staff of the Evangelical Alliance. An English diocese in the Church of England has a diocesan secretary-the head of its diocesan administration-who is almost always lay. It would be impossible for us to work with that woman or man, representing us widely in a whole series of contexts-

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: I am sorry to interrupt the right reverend Prelate, but the whole tenor of his speech seems to be in support of the Government’s amendment. I cannot at the moment distinguish his position from what has already been made clear by the Government about the kind of categories that will be included-the very categories that he is mentioning.

"Duplicitous betrayal" – Evan Harris on goverment and the Equality Bill

Thinking Anglicans have the voting numbers on the four amendments to the Equality Bill yesterday.

The Guardian reports on some strange goings-on between the government and the EU commission on the subject of this bill, involving a “secret” “reasoned opinion” document :

The text of the document, which has not been made public until now, has led to criticisms that the government has told parliament and religious organisations that the law will remain the same, while assuring the EU the law would be strengthened. “This is a duplicitous betrayal of the rights of gay and lesbian church workers,” said Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat equality spokesman, who received a leaked copy of the legal document. “The government have been keeping secret this letter in order to hide from parliament … they appear to have told the EU that they will narrow the law in the equality bill in order to comply with the directive, while telling parliament and the public that there is no narrowing.”

Lords Equality debate: "Status Quo" v. "Status Quo". "Status Quo" wins

Well’ I’ve finally done it. I finally managed to watch/listen to an entire House of Lords debate. That is, the debate on Amendments 98,99,100 and 99A to the Equality Bill. (The government lost by the way, so 98,99,100 were passed. 99A was rejected).

Fascinatingly, one side of the argument, the government, said it wanted to “maintain the status quo”. In sharp contrast, the other side of the argument led by Baroness O’Cathain passionately and vehemently said it wanted to….er…..”maintain the status quo”.

So, in a passionate and, at times, emotional debate you had “status quo” fighting tooth and nail with “status quo”. There was Lord Lester saying that he was “appalled” at the attitude of the bishops in wanting to “maintain the status quo” which is what he also wanted to do. There was lawyer pitted against lawyer – The Lester v Butler-Schloss stand-off which resulted in Baroness Butler-Schloss shaking her head, folding her arms and pursing her lips – the Lords equivalent of a minor revolution. And there was cleric against cleric as former Bishop Lord Harries told the Bishop of Winchester that his arguments supported the government’s case, which the Bishop of Winchester said he was opposing (his name was on the amendments against the government).

That remark from Lord Harries perhaps sums up the debate – all the points were virtually interchangeable so you had the (current) Bishops making arguments which supported the government case, which is logical if you think about it because both sides said they wanted to maintain the “status quo” so it makes sense that the arguments rallied in favour of one side arguing for the status quo could easily be interchanged so that they were also arguments in favour of the other side wanting the status quo. Quite logical.

So what was it all about? Why had some religious groups got us ready for “High Noon” on this one? Goodness knows. Galloping paranoia perhaps? It was a “drafting” debate. Not one on principle. Both sides said it.

Unless of course someone was being disingenuous and/or mischievous.

One thing I noticed was that one side (the anti-government one) argued the principle of their case (religious freedom etc) just in case anyone thought the debate was not a drafting debate aimed at keeping the status quo. The other side didn’t, from memory, make such arguments of principle just in case.

In summary, what a waste of breath, time and money the whole thing was!

Some key points were:

  • The inclusion of the word “proportionality” which the government said wouldn’t change anything anyway. So why put it in? And why keep it out if the anti-government peers said it wouldn’t change anything? Lewis Carroll eat your heart out.
  • Then there was the heated debate about the meaning of “exists to”.
  • And there was a lot of reference to the High Court judgment in the Amicus case but both sides tried to use it to their own ends.

In short, if anyone says this is a victory for the churches or a big defeat for the government or the cause of equality then they didn’t listen to this debate. It was about drafting and what wording in the bill will maintain the status quo – on that both sides were in violent agreement.

Unless of course someone was telling porkies…

PS Archbishop Sentamu is lovely. I could listen to him all day…..Wonderful!

Churches get their knickers in a twist over the Equality Bill

Over the last few days, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time trying to understand the Church’s objections to Schedule 9, Paragraph 2, subsection 8 of the Equality Bill. The House of Lords will debate several amendments to this tomorrow.

I was forwarded an email from someone called David Skinner asking me to sign a petition about this (I didn’t). The email was, it’s fair to say, apocalyptic in its tone. One priceless sentence was “By not signing the petition you are inviting your own oppression.”

Then I became aware of a You Tube video (comments disabled) by something called Christian Concern for our nation. It is presented by Andrea Minichiello-Williams. There is only one way to describe this video. Terrifying. Just watch it below. It’s breathtaking. To the unknowing, it could easily be seen as a spoof satirising evangelical paranoia.

All this hysteria is over a very arcane debate over wording in the lower sections of a bill. I am sure the House of Lords will sort it out. They are good at that sort of thing. Perhaps those who say that we are on the verge of having Christian “oppression” in this country might consider that we are the only country in the civilised world where clerics sit, as of right, in the legislature. Even Iran doesn’t have that. And the Church of England is the established church. “Poor us” is a refrain that doesn’t cut much ice.

Anyway, I mentioned in my last post on this subject, that I could not find any mainstream media commentary on this particular aspect of the bill. “Where is the Guardian when you need them?” I asked. Well, Hurrah for the Guardian! They now have an excellent commentary by Simon Sarmiento, who is a Church Times columnist and founder of Thinking Anglicans (thank goodness there are some left! Warf! Warf!), on Comment is Free entitled Churches panic over Equality Bill. Sarmiento provides a sober and comprehensive critique of the labyrinthine legal minutiae involved in this debate and concludes:

It’s very difficult to see why the latest wording proposed by the government does not concede all that (the churches) require.

Those particularly interested in the subject might like to read Simon Sarmiento’s report from this week’s Church Times here.

Well done Lembit Opik!

After fisking dear old Lembers for his “Daily J Arthur” column last week, it is only fair that I draw attention to his column this week because it has some good liberal views expressed in it. His brain has obviously come back from holiday (Warf Warf). Well done Peter Black for drawing this to my attention and for his comments below (In the absence of an updated Prawn Free Lembit I have cut and pasted the whole column at the bottom of this post. If you want to look at it in its original form on the Daily Sport website with adornments that might get you sacked if you look at it during work hours, it’s here):

Lembit talks about Haiti and urges his readers to cut out a couple of pints this weekend and give the money to the aid appeal. He talks about Tony Blair giving evidence to the Chilcott enquiry and he also writes this:

“THE UK Independence party caused a rumpus this week by calling for a total ban on women wearing burkas. They say this piece of clothing – which completely covers a Muslim lady’s face – is a sign of a “divided Britain”. No, no, no! The fact people are allowed to wear their own religious clothes shows just how tolerant and inclusive Britain is. If we use UKIP’s logic to ban burkas we’ll have to follow it up with a ban on turbans, skull-caps, crucifixes and whatever it is that Jedi Knights wear. We might as well go even further and just give everyone a string vest, rolled up trousers and a hanky for their head so that we can all look “British”. Diversity is the spice of life – it’s one of the things that makes Britain a good place to be. It might be okay to ask people to take off face coverings when they enter a bank or passport control. But you’d need to be a berk to ban the burka!”

That is entirely in line with what Sarah Teather and others said on Question Time on Thursday but, more importantly, it is addressed to those who would not dream of watching that programme and who might be taken in by UKIP and the BNP rhetoric on this issue, using language that they can relate to. It is at times like these that Lembit shows the value of his column. He should do it more often.

Here’s the full column:

Real hell in Haiti  

Friday, January 22, 2010 by Daily Sport.


WE complain about all kinds of things here in the UK, traffic jams, the weather, the price of food, overcrowded trains. Well, ALL that is nothing compared to the troubles in Haiti. The devastating earthquake left more than 100,000 people dead and the entire country in ruins. Water supplies, houses and hospitals have all been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation or dehydration. And many of the injured are simply lying in the street with no medical help and nowhere to go. It’s one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time. The world’s response has been tremendous. Food,water, troops, rescue workers, engineers, vehicles and medical supplies have been flooding in from around the globe. Amazingly, old foes have put their differences aside to help. For the first time bolshie Cuba has allowed US aircrafts to fly through its airspace so they can reach Haiti faster. The UK public have donated more than £23 million. British charities like Oxfam, CAFOD and Christian Aid are pulling out all the stops to get relief to the people who need it most. There are even British firefighters out in Haiti, searching for survivors and helping with the rescue work. That’s a true human good news story. But it doesn’t take away from the catastrophe. With the ports damaged and roads destroyed loads more people will die. On top of this, a lot of the United Nations workers based in Haiti were killed in the quake so the relief effort has taken a real battering.  As if things weren’t bad enough,a strong aftershock on Wednesday wrecked even more buildings and hampered rescue work further still. So here’s mychallenge to all you: if you haven’t donated yet, cut out a couple of pints down the boozer on Friday, log on to http://www.dec.org.uk and give a few quid to the appeal. By converting your ale into aid, you’re actually going to save yourself a hangover and save some lives in Haiti. If every Sport reader chucks in a fiver that’s over five million quid. We can make a REAL difference—and I hope we do.
 
DID you hear about that lucky family who won 26 million quid on the lottery this week? It’s more dramatic than the lottery to win tickets for the 80 places to watch former Prime Minister Tony Blair give evidence at the Iraq War inquiry. He’s the Star Witness. The lucky winners will watch Tricky Tony being grilled on why he led the country into a war that killed British soldiers and Iraqi civilians and cost billions. I don’t know what he’ll say,but I’m pretty sure he won’t say “Sorry, I got it wrong” or “We did it for the oil” or “Saddam was asking for it.” But how on earth can he make good the worst decision of his political career? I  like Tony.He’s decent, friendly and smart. Which makes it all the stranger he committed us to a war which wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives. If you had the choice of a ticket for the Blair session or the lottery ticket which won the £26m, which would you choose? IF Tony comes clean at the inquiry, it would be a priceless moment in British politics. But what are the chances of that? Put it this way, I’d take the money . . .
 
THERE’S a storm in Israel at the moment surrounding sexy lingerie model Bar Rafaeli. Busty Bar, famous for her raunchy photo shoots and on-off relationship with actor Leo DiCaprio, is getting flack off the Israeli army for dodging military service! Israel is the only country in the world where women, as well as men, have to do a compulsory stint in the forces. But they can get out of it if they’re married. So the fetching Ms Rafaeli married a man friend, got exempt for the draft, then got a divorce! Cunning. Now the army are calling for a boycott of her products and fellow supermodel Esti Ginzberg — who did do her military service — has joined in the criticism. I don’t know how good a soldier she’d be. Perhaps they should set up a platoon specifically recruiting ladies like Bar and Esti. They’d certainly be model soldiers who’d excel on the front.
 
THE UK Independence party caused a rumpus this week by calling for a total ban on women wearing burkas. They say this piece of clothing – which completely covers a Muslim lady’s face – is a sign of a “divided Britain”. No, no, no! The fact people are allowed to wear their own religious clothes shows just how tolerant and inclusive Britain is. If we use UKIP’s logic to ban burkas we’ll have to follow it up with a ban on turbans, skull-caps, crucifixes and whatever it is that Jedi Knights wear. We might as well go even further and just give everyone a string vest, rolled up trousers and a hanky for their head so that we can all look “British”. Diversity is the spice of life – it’s one of the things that makes Britain a good place to be. It might be okay to ask people to take off face coverings when they enter a bank or passport control. But
you’d need to be a berk to ban the burka!

Massachussetts loss not such an upset

If He's Dying, He's Going Out Looking Good
Creative Commons License photo credit: John McNab

It’s very easy to paint Massachussets as a Democratic heartland (as indeed I did) where the Republicans hardly get any votes. That way, the Republican win this week looks even more humiliating for Obama.

However, it is worth reflecting on a couple things. First of all, Since 1991, there have been five Governors of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts. No less than four of them have been Republicans.

Secondly, it’s very easy to assume that Ted Kennedy was always a shoe-in to be re-elected Senator throughout his life. However, I have coincidentally just been reading the passage in his memoir “True Compass” where he describes his 1994 election campaign. The chapter is entitled “Capaigning for Political Survival”. He basically says that he nearly lost to Mitt Romney and had to fight a very stiff campaign, accompanied by $10 million of spend (he had to re-mortgage his house), to win.

So elected posts in Massachussetts are not the Democratic sinecures some would have you believe this week.