The UK Parliament automatically awards 26 seats in the House of Lords to bishops of the Church of England. These bishops are able to (and do) vote on legislation, make interventions, and lead prayers at the start of each day’s business.
This is an extremely unusual and anti-democratic set-up, which has a negative influence on the quality and character of British politics. The only two sovereign states in the world to award clerics of the established religion votes in their legislatures are the UK and the Islamic Republic of Iran (a totalitarian theocracy).
The automatic presence of the bishops in the House of Lords is not just a harmless legacy of a medieval constitution but a present example of discrimination, religious privilege, and undemocratic politics.
We campaign for a secular state with inclusive, shared public institutions so that everyone is treated equally, regardless of religion or belief. As a result, we campaign to see the bishops no longer have an automatic right to seats. If religious representatives wish to be in the House of Lords they should seek to gain representation through the same channels as everyone else. In whatever future package of Lords reform comes before Parliament, we are determined to see these so-called Lords Spiritual removed.
The presence of the Church of England in the House of Lords entrenches a privileged position for one particular branch of one religion. This cannot be justified in today’s society, which is not only multi-faith but increasingly non-religious (the non-religious now comprise 52% of the adult population according to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2018, while a staggering 88% are non-Anglican). It is at odds with the aspiration for a more legitimate and representative second chamber and with affirmation of a plural society.
The public overwhelmingly agrees that bishops should not automatically be granted a right to sit in the House of Lords. A survey conducted by YouGov for the Times found that 62 percent of British adults believe that no religious leaders should have ‘an automatic right to seats’ in Parliament. ‘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.’ More generally, 65 percent think that ‘political figures should keep their religious beliefs cordoned off from their decision making, with just 14 per cent saying the opposite.’
What we’re doing
- We have long argued for the removal of the right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords. In 2011, during the last major proposals on reform of the Lords, we led the debate with our ‘Holy Redundant’ campaign, calling for the bishops to lose their automatic seats. Ministers working on Lords reform received more correspondence about this issue than any other.
- In 2017 MPs from the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group voiced concern at the bishops’ continuing presence in a House of Commons debate.
- In December 2017, peers in the House of Lords, including from the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, spoke in a debate in favour of removing the bishops.
- We have also spoken up against proposals that would retain the bishops in a smaller House of Lords, or otherwise. In 2018, we condemned a proposal from the Government’s then Minister for Faith to expand the House of Lords to include (potentially up to 85) clerics of multiple faiths.
- In 2018 we responded to the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House’s inquiry and said the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords ‘unfair, unjustified, and unpopular’.
- We have also conducted extensive research and produced detailed briefings on this matter.
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