Marie-Elsa Bragg

Article for The Church Times on Lords Spiritual, November 2012

In this intense climate of debate about the vote against women Bishops in which members of parliament and the general public are questioning the place of Lords Spiritual in our parliamentary process if they are to be reserved for men only, I find myself agreeing about the need for equality in the second chamber, but not always for the same reasons.
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To have Lords Spiritual in the second chamber affirms the importance of a spiritual perspective at the heart of developing the laws which govern us. I understand that all individuals can bring that approach, and that the Lords Spiritual do not have a monopoly on a moral view. But to have their place enshrined into our constitution, at the very heart of the decisions we make, is a philosophy I deeply respect, because it shows that as a nation, we are serious about building towards the bigger picture, the greater good, the spiritual wellbeing of our people.
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The very fact that this is a part of the design of our chambers makes it part of the symbol of governance in this country, supported by the Queen as both Supreme Governor of the Church and constitutional monarch of the state, bringing the two together under one anointed leader. And like any good symbol, while we refer to it every day, the philosophy of it informs us of who we are and the culture that we are a part of. A culture which many of us are truly grateful for and proud of.
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However, after may conversations over the years and particularly over the last week, I appreciate the strong ‘secular’ voice which demands that for the Church to serve in this capacity it must adhere to the fundamental ethics of our current society; laws which have been passed by the very governmental process the 26 seats for Lord Spiritual participate in.
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Recently a petition was put on the Government website by Lee Chalmers against seats for the Lords Spiritual if they can only be for men. Aware that many will be using the vote against women Bishops to further their argument against Lords Spiritual, which would have still been put forward if there had been a vote in favour of women Bishops, I called Lee and asked her why she decided to put the petition up. She said “I didn’t give too much thought in the past to Bishops being in the House of Lords to be honest. I am aware that there are many people who argue against them having seats at all but it was not an issue that moved me. I’m interested in equality, in particular for women, so I was watching the Church’s vote carefully. When I saw a No, I was so demoralised, so utterly shocked and dismayed that I felt I had to do something…My understanding of the Church is that it’s a guide and force for good and with these seats reserved for men only, and so recently sanctioned, albeit by a small minority, it risks becoming quite the opposite force for women.”
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The discrepancy between the majority view and the Church view is not the reason why I agree with people’s concern. Our duty is to not be swayed by media or popularity but to keep our eyes on God and service. However it is of course our duty to listen to people as God speaks through them. All of us who have asked the question of vocation are aware that we discern whether it has come out of the people we serve as well as from deep within. And it is clear that 42 out of 44 dioceses voted in favour and 72.6% of synod voted in favour, which is God speaking through a large number of people. In addition it has become clear in the last week that a further large number of ‘secular Christians’ still believe that this is their church and they believe their voice should be heard even if they only attend weddings, christenings, funerals and Christmas. These people have pulled away from regular attendance but still clearly look to us from a distance and seem to be waiting to find a God they can recognise. Further more there are people who do not consider themselves ‘secular Christians’ and still look to the church as a guide and force for good. To keep our view on the bigger picture and minister to the spiritual health of our people, we must recognise that we are the home for far more than attend church on a Sunday and as history continues to move forward, we must keep an overview of our ministry and continue to minister to them.
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The Church is not run as a democracy but it uses a democratic process to discern its vocation. And every generation has a duty to listen to new ways the Spirit may be coming through. Within my work on leadership training programmes at Said Business School, Oxford University and Olivier Mythodrama Associates, I see that there is a new generation of people in the business world aware of the need for a spiritual perspective. On a personal level many live with long work days, battling with their work/life balance and often feel so much pressure they are in danger of derailment. They see the need for more meaning and the inspiration to change things for the better. And the companies themselves are looking for a vision of the greater good in how they govern their employees and in their contribution to society. Questions such as ‘what do you serve’ and ‘when you look back at the end of your days, what would you like to say you have contributed’ are being asked. And I see people looking for something in their heritage which they are proud of, to stand in line with their ancestors and make a difference. This view is being expressed in many aspects of work and life in the country and is a good example of the Spirit working in new ways for us to follow.

Within the current debate, I agree with the need for equality in the second chamber because I hear it as our vocation. And I feel it is our duty not only to follow the Spirit as its ministry develops generation after generation, but to also act as custodians of a tradition which includes extraordinary gifts such as Lords Spiritual in the heart of the nation it serves. To forsake one for the other would be to lose a large and integral part of our ministry.
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My prayer is that the renewal of Spirit moves us forward together, with respect for the many views within the Church, and that fully inclusive Lords Spiritual will soon fulfil our ministry and allow us to follow our call to serve.