A new Private Members’ Bill introduced in the UK proposes an end to the centuries-old tradition that grants some Church of England bishops the automatic right to seats in the House of Lords.
These customary seats reserved for clergy have existed in some form since the medieval era. The most recent successful attempt to curtail this outdated tradition took place in 1847, when the Bishopric of Manchester Act capped the number of seats available to bishops at 26.
You might say that reform is long overdue.
As it stands, the Bishops of Durham, London, and Winchester and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury are all guaranteed seats. The remaining twenty-one seats are allocated based on seniority, with mandatory retirement at age 70. Collectively they are known as the Lords Spiritual (although technically there are at least a few ladies spiritual as well). No matter what views, skills, or foibles these bishops bring to the table, they are deemed fit to serve — and legislate — by virtue of their position in the Church.
The proceedings of the House of Lords cannot commence without at least one Lord Spiritual present to read opening prayers. Bishops also participate in the legislative business of the day, participate in committees, and may focus on specific areas of policy as aligned with their expertise, interests, or role in the Church.
The Church of England Parliamentary Unit argues that the inclusion of these 26 bishops is the most inclusive and democratic part of the House of Lords, since the bishops are independent from party politics and geographically diverse:
Like other members of the Lords, bishops are not elected to parliament. Unlike other members, their diocesan role means they are in touch with geographical areas of the country, which often informs the contributions they make in the House.
Their presence in the Lords is an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God’s word and to lead people in prayer… While they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.
But if you’re left questioning how a gaggle of Christian bishops could claim to represent people of all the myriad faiths practiced in the United Kingdom, you’re not alone. Richy Thompson, director of Public Affairs and Policy at Humanists UK, points out the fundamental unfairness of such a system of government in a nation where so many people practice other religions or no religion:
The UK is the only democratic sovereign state in the world to have religious leaders sit as of right in our Parliament. Giving bishops extra rights and more influence over our legislative process and on important laws which shape our country is unfair, unjustified, and unpopular, especially when society is now more diverse than ever. We hope this bill becomes law and ends this unfair system once and for all.
According to England’s Electoral Reform Society, the only other countries that explicitly include their religious leaders in lawmaking are Iran and Vatican City. They also point out that the reserved seats for Church of England bishops inflates the representation given to the English portion of the UK at the expense of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
To become law, the bill will need support from the House of Lords as well as the support of at least one Member of Parliament. If successful, the House of Commons will debate the motion and vote on whether to make it law.
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