The House of Commons will debate the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. The debate will represent overdue engagement from MPs with questions about the future relationship between church and state in the UK. It comes as polling shows the UK’s non-religious population continues to surge; that the public overwhelmingly want bishops out of the Lords; that religious affiliation is declining steadily across the UK; and growing concerns that the Church of England’s political stance on civil rights issues is incompatible with its role as an ‘established’ church.
The backbench business debate, which will take place on 6 July, was secured by Tommy Sheppard MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (for which Humanists UK is the secretariat). Humanists UK worked with Tommy to secure the debate, which has attracted cross-party support. Earlier this year, Humanists UK patron Sandi Toksvig made a high-profile intervention on this, calling for Church of England bishops to be removed from the House of Lords over its opposition to conducting same-sex marriages.
In support of the debate, Humanists UK is urging members of the public to tell their MPs to attend.
Wait… Bishops can vote in the UK Parliament?!
26 Church of England bishops have the automatic right to sit, speak, and vote in the House of Lords, and ordinary members must shut up and sit down when they stand to speak. This is a mediaeval anachronism which can hardly be said to reflect the diverse make-up of the UK. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey showed that the share of British adults belonging to the Church of England now stands at just 12%, with no religion at 53%. With just 1% of young adults identifying as Anglican, this figure is expected to plummet further in the next two decades.
The only other sovereign country where clerics speak and vote in Parliament is the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the UK, the 26 bishops enjoy numerous privileges over ordinary peers, including advance consultation privileges on legislation, extra speaking rights in the chamber, and exemptions from the Code of Conduct. They sometimes vote as a bloc on moral issues in line with the Church of England’s official policy, which on many ethical issues is vastly different from that of Church of England’s laity and the broader country as a whole. Humanists UK continues to campaign for the removal of automatic places for bishops in Parliament.
Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:
‘We would like to thank Tommy for securing this much-needed debate.
‘The laws that keep in place the automatic rights to bishops to sit in the House of Lords are a hangover from ancient times and have no place in our modern, pluralistic society. It’s unfair, unjustified, and unpopular.
‘We encourage our members and supporters, and the general public, to write to their MP to support the motion.’
In 2020 the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group published a report, Time for Reflection, that examined the presence of bishops in detail. It identified nine recent incidents where bishops’ votes have changed the outcome of legislation, including one where the bishops voted to exempt the Church of England from employment equality laws, and another where the bishops voted to give the Church more control over its state schools.
In 2022, the Labour Party announced it would replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, which would have the effect of removing the Lords Spiritual. SNP policy supports House of Lords reform on a similar scale, and Liberal Democrat and Green standing policy favour abolishing the Lords Spiritual. Humanists UK is urging MPs from all parties to recognise that constitutional reform of the Lords is growing increasingly urgent, not least because of the widening gap between clerical legislators and today’s religiously diverse society.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 110,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.