THE threatened sale of the Zurbaran paintings proves the need to curb the “unaccountable”

power of the Church Commissioners, the Government has been told.

The commissioners were accused of a “form of money laundering”, as the peers demanded the body be made properly answerable to Parliament.

In an extraordinary attack, Lord Howarth, a former Labour Arts Minister, described the commissioners as a “bunch of simoniacs” – a term, dating back to the Middle Ages, condemning profitmaking out of sacred items.

And he told the House of Lords: “Church of England moralists have inveighed (spoken out strongly) against asset strippers, junk bond dealers and greedy bankers.

“But, if the Church Commissioners are to act like a bunch of simoniacs in the 21st Century, selling their heritage as their predecessors in the Middle Ages sold ecclesiastical privileges, we might as well accept that the bankers should be in charge of our spiritual destinies.”

The criticisms came as the Lords debated an amendment to rein in the commissioners by including them within the Public Bodies Bill.

The move would have allowed the Government to change the constitution of the body that manages the historic property assets of the Church of England.

The amendment was rejected on the grounds that it was outside the Bill’s scope and because the Government does not legislate on the internal affairs of the Church without its consent.

Nevertheless, it revealed how the storm of protest over the sale of the Zurbarans, which have hung in Auckland Castle for 260 years, has reached the House of Lords.

Peers are also furious about the sale of bishops’ palaces in Carlisle and Worcester, hard on the heels of a review into the future of Auckland Castle.

Referring to the sales, Tory peer Lord Inglewood said: “It is a form of money laundering.

This seems to be a quite unacceptable exercise of its powers by a public body. The behaviour of the commissioners needs to be looked at.”

Unlike the Commons – where every month an MP answers questions about the commissioners’ activities – the Lords has no forum for raising controversies.

The commissioners have vowed to auction the 13 Zurbarans this summer, arguing the £15m they expect to raise will support an extra ten priests in poorer areas.

A working party is exploring alternatives to the sale, while Durham County Council examines the legality of removing them from the castle.

Last month, David Cameron suggested an export ban could be imposed to prevent the Zurbarans leaving the country.

A spokesman for the Church Commissioners said it was a group with “clear accountabilities and high professional standards”, pointing out that its report and accounts were laid before Parliament and the General Synod.

He said: “The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Tony Baldry MP, is answerable in the Commons and regularly gives an account of the commissioners’ proceedings.

“There are six state commissioners – the Prime Minister, the Lord President of the Council, the Secretaries of State for the Home Department and for Culture, Media and Sport and the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament, to whom anyone with concerns has recourse.”

Lord Faulkner, a Labour peer, pointed out that the commissioners were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

The Lord Bishop of Chester – a commissioner – insisted it had “a desire to do what is best in this rather delicate ecology of how the Church of England relates to the nation as a whole”. He said: “In the case of Auckland Castle, there is, and has been, no proposal to sell it.

“There is a discussion about the castle and its contents that will, no doubt, go on. I am very pleased to hear of the discussions taking place.”

Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman said: “I don’t think it is money laundering as the lord described it, but obviously there is a legal argument about the duties of the Church Commissioners and whether they have the right to sell the paintings and that is one of the things we have asked them to look at.”