Unconvincing arguments MPs made for keeping bishops in the Lords

12 July, 2023

Last week, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) organised a debate in Parliament on whether bishops should continue to have 26 automatic seats in the House of Lords. Humanists UK Public Affairs Manager (and APPHG Secretariat) Karen Wright, who helped to arrange the debate, discusses some of the least convincing arguments made for retaining the status quo as it is.


Last week saw MPs debate the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. The debate was organised by the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, Tommy Sheppard MP, with support from Humanists UK. He did so after our patron Sandi Toksvig organised a petition that was signed by over 160,000 people calling for their removal. She organised the petition due to the Church of England’s opposition to same-sex marriages.

Several MPs made strong arguments in favour of removing the bishops, including Tommy, an SNP MP, and his fellow APPHG officers Aaron Bell (Conservative) and Rachel Hopkins (Labour). Martin Docherty-Hughes (SNP) also supported removing the bishops, while Chris Loder (Conservative), while not opposing their presence, expressed his disagreement with some of their political advocacy. Patrick Grady for the SNP front bench and Alex Norris for the Labour front bench both supported wider Lords reform.

But some MPs argued more broadly in support of the bishops, and some of the arguments they advanced… left something to be desired. Let’s take a look.

Undeclared beliefs of pro-bishops speakers

Conservative MP Andrew Selous is the Second Church Estates Commissioner. That means he is officially the Church of England’s representative in the House of Commons. But he did not declare this at any point during his speech, nor even that he is a Christian. Perhaps the nature of his role means that no such declaration is required. If so, that in itself is a problem.

Labour MP Neil Coyle also broadly defended the bishops, as well as choosing to raise other issues entirely. He also did not declare his reportedly Christian beliefs.

In contrast, all the MPs more critical of the bishops did publicly declare their own worldviews and affiliations.

‘There aren’t many bishops’

In his speech Andrew Selous said:

‘[B]ishops today make up just 3% of the House of Lords… Of those 26 bishops, it is usual for just one or two to vote. I am told that a large number would be four or five, and six would be right at the top of the scale. I am unsure of how many votes the bishops have swung because they tend to come down on a rota system.’

26 is still 26 too many. And sometimes they do vote in large numbers. 14 voted against assisted dying at once. Eight once voted to make it harder to test embryos for genetic abnormalities. Eight voted on an amendment to the 2010 Equality Act to expand the range of posts in which religious groups can require that a jobholder is religious.

On that last vote, the amendment only passed due to the support of the bishops. Similarly, in 2016, the bishops caused an amendment to fail, the result being that they now get more control over state-funded Church of England schools than they would have otherwise. In fact between 2002 and 2018, the votes of the bishops in the House of Lords changed the outcome for nine votes.

‘Most people are religious’

Selous also argued, ‘My reading of the 2021 census is that a majority of people in England and Wales declared a faith.’

The fact is that the Census is biased and leads to a higher religious result than it should. But even so, most people didn’t tick Christian. And more importantly, most people – including most Christians – want the bishops gone.

‘This is really about eradicating the Church of England’

Finally, Selous argued, ‘I think that some here would like to eradicate the whole footprint of the Church of England across their country. They are entitled to that view—I do not have a problem with that—but it is not a view that I agree with and share.’

But no-one made the argument that there shouldn’t be a Church of England. Indeed we strongly support freedom of religion or belief. We just want to see the CofE disestablished – as is the case outside of England. No debates are happening in Wales or Scotland about eradicating the Church in Wales or Church of Scotland, respectively. Nor is there in those countries a hostile attitude to religious people or groups of a sort Selous also expressed a fear of.

As Tommy Sheppard said in his speech:

Some time ago, there were plenty of examples of established Churches – indeed, the Anglican Church was established in many other countries – but over time disestablishment has taken place, and I submit that it has been to the benefit of both Church and state. Demonstrably, the state has continued to be there, without being subject to partisan interests, and the Church has been freed from the responsibility, and has been better able to play the role it should in debates taking place among the population: the role of our social and moral conscience.

‘There are other issues in the Lords’

Now we turn to Neil Coyle. First, he argued, ‘I support reform of the House of Lords, but just targeting bishops for removal would leave the House full of Tory donors and political patronage, and that is not a House I would be happy to see.’

This seems like a classic ‘two wrongs make a right’ argument. It is wrong that bishops are automatically reserved places in the Lords. It also may be wrong that party donors often find their way into the Lords. But that points to the need to fix both issues. No-one was claiming that bishops are the only problem.

The other fact remains that, as there will always be ‘bigger problems’ to deal with to someone, someone needs to bang the drum about bishops! We know this is crucial. For example, then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s proposals for a reformed upper chamber would have introduced a fully elected House of Lords… except for leaving in the bishops, whose share of seats would have gone up. And that’s despite his party, the Lib Dems, being formally opposed to the establishment of the Church of England.

We have to be very clear: Lords reform must include getting rid of the bishops. Simply appealing to ‘bigger’ problems doesn’t provide justification for continuing a discriminatory practice.

‘Bishops represent constituencies’

Next, Coyle argued, ‘I am mindful that a bishop at least represents a diocese, which gives them—more than others they sit with—a constituency, of sorts, to reflect in the House of Lords.’

But they represent almost no-one in those ‘constituencies’. Just 12% of British adults are Anglican and less than 1% attend Church on an average week. Furthermore, over 60% of peers are already Christian.

So Anglicans are already vastly overrepresented.

‘Bishops should get involved in politics’

Coyle also argued, ‘One backer of this debate said that bishops have been intervening pointedly in politics. I would be disappointed if the Church were not standing up on these issues and did not take a view on the Government’s devaluing of human life. I would be disappointed if it did not request that, rather than crossing the road, we should be the good Samaritan and intervene to help others where we can.’

But nothing would stop the bishops from doing what Coyle wants, were they outside the House of Lords or appointed there on the same basis as other faith leaders in the Lords. They just wouldn’t be doing it from an unfair position.

This is how it’s done in every other sovereign democracy in the world.

‘Unfair to target one faith group’

Finally, Coyle argued, ‘It is disappointing that this debate is focused on one group in the House of Lords, based on their faith, rather than their role… The bishops should not be targeted purely because of the denomination they represent, their understanding of British values, how they demonstrate that through their faith, the communities they serve and their experience working in churches and dioceses.’

This misses the entire point. The bishops are being singled out because they are the only ones there. They are appointed because of their faith. That is why they are being targeted because of it.

We also don’t think it’s right or fair to insinuate that it’s those of us who propose a fairer, less discriminatory system who are ‘singling’ people out on the basis of their religion. That is precisely what the current system does!

‘Government ministers also have exemptions from the Code of Conduct’

Next we turn to Government minister Alex Burghart.

In his speech, Tommy Sheppard argued, ‘the code of conduct in the House of Lords, and particularly its strictures on conflicts of interest, does not apply to the Lords Spiritual. In effect, it is accepted that they would not have a conflict of interest, or if they did, that it should be ignored. In effect, one Church—the Church of England—has 26 paid professional advocates, right at the heart of the constitutional arrangements of this country, who are there to protect and advance the interests of that institution. That gives the Church of England an unfair advantage in this democratic system.’

Burghart replied to this, ‘although it is true that there is a slightly different code of conduct for bishops, that is also the case for Ministers of the Crown and Members who are employees of non-departmental public bodies. I do not quite follow the hon. Gentleman’s arguments there.’

If Government ministers were not allowed to advocate for the Government in Parliament then it would be impossible for democracy to function. Such an exemption from the paid advocacy prohibition is an essential feature of parliamentary democracy. On the other hand, there is no such justification for the bishops. Their exemption is discriminatory and unfair.

‘Anglicans are under-represented in the Lords’

Finally, we get to the worst argument of the lot. Burghart said, ‘Do bishops today reflect society? I think the hon. Gentleman [Tommy Sheppard] said 14% of people in the United Kingdom are Anglicans. Only 3% of the Members of the House of Lords are Anglican bishops. If one wanted to go down that route—I am not encouraging anyone to so do—one would say that the Anglicans were under-represented.’

But bishops are obviously not the only Anglicans in the Lords. Around 70% of peers* are Christians, compared to 39% of the general public. Anglicans are massively over-represented. They will continue to be so even without the bishops present!


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

*Excluding no-shows, over 70% of peers (Lords Temporal) swore a Christian oath after the 2019 election. This figure falls to 62% when you include the don’t-knows.

Read our write-up of the debate.

Watch the debate which took place on 6 July 2023 from 13:50.

Read the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group’s report, Time for Reflection.

Read more about our work on bishops in the House of Lords.

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