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Commentary

Take the Bishops

Agnostics anonymous

The most die-hard Anglicans, if there are such things, must feel some sympathy for secularists campaigning to remove the bishops from the House of Lords. If you had to invent the British political system from scratch you'd struggle to think of any reason to include them. But the same applies to large swathes of the British political life: from the Crown downwards, not much of it would make it past a modern focus group. But reforming this cobwebbed muddle is a thankless task, too convoluted to inspire popular interest.

Secularists have compared the presence of the bishops to the presence of the Mullahs in Iran. This attempt to make the issue more exciting may work if Iran's progress towards nuclearisation and the West's attempts to derail it continue to worsen tensions. However, the comparison fails on historical grounds. Although the Ayatollahs seem to embody medieval backwardness, religion is at the heart of the Iranian state as a legacy of a wholly modern revolution. The theocrats were the instigators of the fall of the Shah and the inheritors of the Persian state.

The CofE's place at the heart of the British establishment, meanwhile, is a relic of the successful attempt to stall the Puritan revolution. The genuine revolutionaries were forced out of Britain by the Elizabethan settlement. The Virgin Queen held the line against the radicals, driving them to the Americas, from whence their descendants' religious mania still appals. At the same time she held out against the Jesuit-led Catholic counter-revolution. The result of her efforts was a Church tightly bonded to the Crown and the nation.

When a real English revolution came, the Bishops were thrown out of government. But the British state weathered the storm of Cromwell, its nearest dalliance with a theocratic ruler, and preserved its peculiar continuity throughout the revolutionary upheavals that shook the rest of Europe. The result is the battered, baffling, baroque  British state we have today, in which the bishops have their own bemusing niche.

For an agnostic, there's a strong argument for keeping the Church established and the Bishops in the Lords: put simply, it could be worse. Dr Rowan Williams has argued that their presence means that faith in general has a representation in government, and removes the necessity to give specific representation to all faith groups. As long as religion's role in the heart of the state can be confined to a particularly dormant, dilute form of religion, that's a Faustian pact secularists ought to accept.  The Church was designed to keep Britain safe from the religious. While it continues to fulfil that role, it's probably better than the alternatives.