NSS calls on Manx legislators to abolish automatic seat for bishop

The National Secular Society has called on Manx lawmakers to abolish a bishop’s automatic seat in the legislature.

The Church of England bishop of Sodor and Man sits and votes by right in the Legislative Council, the upper branch of the Isle of Man’s parliament, Tynwald. The arrangements in Tynwald echo those in Westminster, where 26 Church of England bishops sit as of right in the House of Lords and prayers are said in both houses before sittings.

A consultation is being held on the bishop’s role in Tynwald, following the successful second reading of the Isle of Man Constitution Bill 2023 in December. If passed, the bill would remove the bishop’s vote.

The NSS urged legislators to use a parliamentary override if the Legislative Council attempted to block the bill.

Bishop’s voting powers “an anomaly in a modern, liberal democracy”

In a submission to all 24 Members of the House of Keys (MHKs), Tynwald’s directly elected lower branch, the NSS called on MHKs to pass the bill, saying the privileged position of “one denomination of one faith” is both “divisive and unrepresentative”.

The bishop’s vote is “an anomaly in a modern, liberal democracy”, it added.

The NSS said the bishop’s seat should be abolished entirely. It rejected a 2018 claim by the then bishop that his automatic seat was justified on the basis of the Church’s access to special moral insights.

It reminded legislators of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s conclusion that the Church had prioritised its own reputation over the “physical, emotional and spiritual well-being” of children sexually abused at the hands of its members.

It also pointed to the Church’s openly homophobic and sexist doctrine, which it described as “firmly at odds” with the views of the general public.

The submission also explained how the bishop had used his ex officio position to “subvert the democratic will” of the Manx people. In 2018, the bishop voted against a bill which sought to extend access to abortion on the Isle.

The reforms to abortion law enjoyed overwhelming support during public consultation and were passed by a margin of 22 to 2 in the House of Keys.

The submission also noted the archbishop of York’s claim that removing the bishop’s vote would “significantly undermine” the case for Sodor and Man being a separate diocese.

The NSS said it was for the Church to decide “if it wishes to employ threats of abolishing the diocese”, but legislators should not allow this to stand in the way of “much needed constitutional reform”.

It also called for an end to parliamentary prayers, which one MHK described as “exclusionary and divisive”.

NSS: ‘Clerics in the legislature as of right an affront to democracy’

“Ending the automatic seat for the bishop is an important and necessary step towards creating a more modern, open and equitable Tynwald.

“The whole concept of clerics in the legislature as of right is an affront to democracy.

“If bishops wish to participate in the democratic process, they are welcome to run for office like everyone else.”

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