Bizarre Parliamentary Practices

The extraordinary and unmerited privileges enjoyed by the C of E come under the spotlight in this Newham Recorder opinion piece (for publication 5.2.20)

An ‘unholy’ row has broken out in our ‘Mother of Parliaments.’ It concerns prayer cards, seating and MPs’ ability to participate. It’s trivial in the context of, say, the climate emergency. But it speaks volumes about our outdated institutions.

A foreign observer might be amazed to learn that, while there are 650 MPs, the Commons chamber only has 427 seats.  It is virtually impossible for an MP to ask a question at PMQs unless they have a seat. The only way to reserve one is by attending morning prayers and leaving a prayer card on it.

A complaint was made at the end of PMQs on 15 January by Tory MP Crispin Blunt. He is also Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Crispin pointed out to the Speaker that the practice is not only unfair to non-believers like him. It is also unfair to those of non-CofE faith. They too may object to attending prayers they don’t believe in just to guarantee the chance of taking part in the democratic process.

Meanwhile in the Lords 26 unelected bishops decide on our laws and even have the right to speak first. These bizarre, archaic practices might be ok in a theocracy like Iran. But they are at odds with a modern secular democracy.

The argument for having an established church, let alone the many privileges it enjoys, gets weaker by the day.  January also witnessed BBC documentaries on former Bishop Peter Ball. He abused children for years and was sentenced to 32 months in 2015.  One rotten apple? The real scandal is the institutional attempt by Church leaders to protect him. Not least prospective ‘Defender of the Faith’ Prince Charles who provided Ball with testimonials.

A backward stance on women and gay equality has no doubt also contributed to the sharp decline in church membership. Those who describe this as a ‘Christian country’ are kidding themselves. Just look around you in Newham. We are a country of many faiths and beliefs. And most of us have no faith. It’s about time our institutions treated us all equally.

Paul Kaufman, Chair East London Humanists.

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