Campaigns for an inclusive, shared society
We want the UK to become a secular state, guaranteeing equal treatment for everyone, regardless of religion or belief. This means creating a level playing field for everyone, and so we campaign to see the Church of England and Church of Scotland disestablished, and the inequalities associated with having an established religion removed. This includes removing the 26 bishops who sit as of right in the House of Lords, with appointments or elections to the chamber instead being done for secular reasons.
Although it has been disestablished in Wales and Northern Ireland, the Anglican Church is still the state church of England. Similarly the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland is recognised as the national church of Scotland and, like the Church of England, has the monarch at its head. We wish to see both churches disestablished.
Establishment is often used to justify discrimination in education (for example, through religious schools and daily Christian worship in other schools), in the UK Parliament (for example, Church of England bishops automatically gain 26 seats in the House of Lords), and in public service provision (for instance, in Anglican acts of worship being shown so frequently in public broadcasting). All of this is simply not fair in today’s modern, diverse society. Disestablishment would include a separation of church and state so that the head of state (the Queen) is not also head of the Church of England, and an end to other constitutional entanglements between church and state.
An established church becomes less justifiable as the proportion of the population who are Christian continues to fall. Most surveys and statistics suggest that a majority of the population is non-religious, with Christians representing a minority of the population, and Church of England attendance at a record low of just over 1% of the population (and falling) according to official attendance figures. Fewer people now attend Church of England churches each week than children take part in Anglican collective worship every day in state-funded Church of England schools. The 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey, for example, found that 52% of the population are non-religious, while a staggering 88% do not belong to the established church. Public opinion supports disestablishment too. According to a 2013 YouGov survey, just 27% of British adults think that ‘the connection between the Church of England and the State should continue’, while 51% think ‘the Church should be separated from the State’.
Secularism would require an end to bishops sitting as of right in the House of Lords and a substantial reduction in permissible discrimination based on religion or belief. No other democratic sovereign state gives seats in its legislature to religious representatives as of right. The only other democracy on the whole of the planet with with reserved places for voting clerics is the Isle of Man, which reserves one seat for the Bishop of Sodor and Man. A non-voting representative of the Church of England also attends both the Guernsey and Jersey States Assemblies. This gives a privileged role to the Church of England in each of the three UK crown dependencies as well.
A 2017 YouGov poll for The Times found that 65 percent of the British public think that ‘political figures should keep their religious beliefs cordoned off from their decision making, with just 14 per cent saying the opposite.’ Further, ‘62 percent of people saying that no religious clerics should have “an automatic right to seats”. Only 8 percent of people said the bishops should retain their seats while 12 per cent said leaders from other faiths should be added to sit alongside bishops as Lords Spiritual. The remaining 18 per cent said they did not know.’
The fact that bishops continue to vote on our laws, sometimes making the difference between whether or not certain votes are passed, is an anachronism that has long been in need for reform. We set out more details about why this is an issue and our thoughts on the problem on our separate page on bishops in the House of Lords.
Wider religious discrimination in politics
There are a number of other areas where the constitution needs reforming to remove religious discrimination. One of the most insidiously discriminatory issues is the requirement that Parliament starts its business with prayers each day, giving MPs and peers who attend prayers a chance to reserve their seats for the whole day – discriminating against politicians who are not religious.
This means if a subsequent debate of is popular, then those MPs and peers who do not wish to take part in prayers often struggle to get a seat and therefore are less likely to be chosen to speak in the debate. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group complain to us about this issue more than any other. This fundamentally affects the ability of all views to have equal opportunity to be heard. We campaign for compulsory prayers in the UK Parliament to be replaced by ‘time for reflection’, borrowing from the successful approach taken by the Scottish Parliament. In Scotland, time for reflection rotates amongst different religious groups and humanists, contributing to the ethical or ‘spiritual’ development of elected officials without privileging one particular religion, its values, its rules, or its adherents.
Equally egregious is that if in a debate in the House of Lords a bishop stands up to speak, then they always get precedence over any other individual, who must give way.
Prayers commonly also feature in local council sessions, excluding non-religious councillors from what has been designated as council business. After the High Court ruled in 2012 that such prayers could not legally occur as part of formal business, a new law in 2015 was passed making them legal again. As in the UK Parliament, we support ending prayers as part of formal business or replacing them with inclusive ‘time for reflection’. This is a key issue for many local councillors, including members of our Humanists Councillors Network.
A remaining constitutional bias in the UK is the law that states that the monarch cannot be a Catholic, and the fact that the opening ceremony of the judicial year, attended by judges, is Anglican in nature. Other national ceremonies, such as those on Remembrance Sunday, are often by custom presided over by the Church of England and portrayed as religious in tone; we campaign for these to be neutral, civic, and inclusive of everyone.
What we’re doing
- We continue to speak out on the need to end established status for the Church of England and Church of Scotland.
- We also campaign for House of Lords reform to remove the automatic right of bishops to seats. In 2011 our ‘Holy Redundant’ campaign sought to challenge the decision, in the last major proposals to reform the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber, to nonetheless keep 12 seats for bishops. The campaign meant that ministers got more correspondence about this issue than any other aspect of the reforms. However, the proposals were ultimately scrapped and so the 26 seats the bishops automatically have at the moment remained in place. You can find out more about our campaigns around bishops in the Lords on the separate page on our website for this campaign.
You can also research and take up disestablishment more generally with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.