3 December 2009

The Tablet reports on Bishop Arnold at the Newman Society

A respected canon lawyer said this week that Catholic bishops cannot sit in the House of Lords, writes Christopher Lamb.

Bishop John Arnold, an auxiliary in Westminster, said that canon law forbids an ordained person from taking up a position in the legislature.

His comments suggest that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor would not be able to take a seat in the House of Lords. Earlier this year the Prime Minister suggested that the cardinal might be given a peerage.

“Jonathan Sacks [Chief Rabbi] is there but Catholics won’t be there because there is a canon in the code of canon law that says ordained clerics should not take part in any legislative forum in Government,” Bishop Arnold told a debate on religion in public life arranged by the Oxford University Newman Society.

Canon 285 states “clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.” Other canon lawyers argued that the cardinal could exempt himself from parts of canon law, as long as he kept the Holy See informed. Bishop Arnold also said he was ambivalent about the position of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords.

“I’m really quite open to the question as to whether bishops in the Church of England should be in the House of Lords or not,” he said. “At the moment on the balance of things they do a reasonable job and they are their own men in terms of the opinions they hold.”

The bishop was debating opposite Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP about the role of religion in public life. Dr Harris, who this year was awarded the title “Secularist of the year” by the National Secular Society, recently put forward amendments in the House of Commons to repeal the Act of Settlement, which forbids the monarch from marrying a Catholic. Bishop Arnold said that while he thought the law was “anachronistic” and should be changed, he “wasn’t going to lose sleep over it”. Dr Harris and Bishop Arnold agreed that people should not talk about Britain as a Christian country. “We shouldn’t talk about Christian Britain but Christianity in Britain,” the bishop said.
Click for a summary of the report in The Tablet
and here for commetary made in Damian Thompson's Telegraph blog.

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