In a debate on House of Lords reform yesterday, eight MPs from four different parties called for an end to the automatic right of 26 bishops from the Church of England to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has long campaigned against the bishops’ presence, and has today welcomed the calls.
The debate was moved by SNP MP Martin Docherty, who said, ‘let me turn specifically to a certain cadre—the archbishops and bishops of the established Church of England. While much has been made of likening their position to that of the theocrats of the Islamic Republic of Iran, my direct challenge to them is this: they have no place in debating—or voting on, should it occur—the civic or religious life of Scotland. I draw Members’ attention to early-day motion 952, submitted by my own hand and signed by many of my hon. Friends from Scottish constituencies, which calls on the Lords Spiritual to desist in their well documented, historical interference in the affairs of the community of Scotland since the times of our late and noble King David. Their interference must end if this Parliament is truly to reflect the broad kirk of representation and communities of this political state.’ He was joined by SNP MPs Patricia Gibson, Kirsty Blackman, Gavin Newlands and Peter Grant in advocating their removal, with Gibson saying that ‘I have often wondered whether [their presence] means that God is an Englishman.’
Similarly, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts argued that ‘the political views of the people or society in general. Over three quarters of peers are male and over half are over 70. I wanted to work out their combined age, but it was far too difficult, and we would have got into dinosaur aeons, I suspected. Seats are guaranteed for bishops of the Church of England, but not for the Church in Wales or the Church of Scotland, let alone for any other faith. Do the Government consider a non-Christian to be less of a citizen than a Christian? I hope not, but the existence of the House, in its present form, suggests otherwise.’
Conservative MP John Penrose argued that the presence of bishops in the Lords ‘buttress the central charge of a lack of legitimacy and democratic principle in the Lords as it is currently constituted’, and that he would remove them. And Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, a Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (to which the BHA provides the secretariat), challenged another MP, who called for 10% of seats in the Lords to be reserved for faith leaders, by asking rhetorically, ‘The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that, in the last census, some 31% of the population said that they had no religion and that they do not feel that they would be represented be people of faith… Does the hon. Gentleman not think that humanists should also be represented?’
BHA Campaigns Manager Richy Thompson commented, ‘The fact that one denomination of one church retains the unique right for 26 of its bishops to sit and vote on matters in the House of Lords is unfair, unjustified, and unpopular – even 70 percent of Christians are against it. Just this week the Church of England has published new figures showing that weekly attendance continues to fall, now representing just 1.5% of the population as a whole – and for the first time ever, fewer people attend church each week than children attend Anglican worship each day in state-funded Church of England schools.
‘The UK is the only democracy to reserve seats in its legislature for religious leaders, and this is an anachronism that must change.’
For further comment or information contact BHA Campaigns Manager Richy Thompson on 020 7324 3072 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The last time Lords reform was seriously considered, the BHA ran the ‘Holy Redundant’ campaign around the proposals: http://holyredundant.org.uk/
Read more about the BHA’s work on Bishops in the Lords: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/constitutional-reform/bishops-in-the-lords
Read the BHA’s 2011 briefing on Bishops in the Lords: https://humanists.uk/wp-content/uploads/1bha-briefing-bishops-in-the-lords-2011-final.pdf
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.