When most people think of Bishops they imagine a man or woman saying prayers in a cathedral, not making the laws that govern all of us. But there are Bishops today who sit in the House of Lords with an automatic right to vote on the Lords which affect us all.
Beyond the Vatican City and Iran*, most countries do not allow clerics a role in making laws that bind believers and unbelievers alike.
The Bishops who sit in the House of Lords or ‘The Lords Spiritual’ date back to the 14th century. In medieval times society was judged to be divided into three estates; the clergy, nobility and everyone else. The bishops aren’t immune to reform and there have been numerous attempts, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to reform them.
The most recent successful reform was the Bishopric of Manchester Act in 1847 which limited the number of Bishops able to take their seats to 26, the figure they remain to this day.
If having Bishops in Parliament was out of date in 1847, a year when the Prime Minister sat in the Lords and not the Commons, it really says it all; this is a medieval tradition not a fit feature of a 21st century democracy.
The archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of Durham, London and Winchester all automatically get a seat in the House of Lords. The next 21 are the longest-serving bishops, whether they have any useful skills or not – even hereditary peers have to go through a by-election from their fellows to win a seat.
The Church in Parliament website states that the Bishop’s ‘presence in the Lords is an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God’s word and to lead people in prayer. Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House… they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.’
But the Bishops don’t even represent the spread of Christian opinion in the country. Whatever their stated intentions, 26 Bishops belonging to the Church of England can hardly provide spiritual insight representing Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Rastafarians, Humanists or the many other beliefs of this country.
It also adds to the inequality of the Lords with regards to the UK. Already London and the South-east is overly represented but this small group also excludes the nations of Scotland (After 1689, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland did not have traditional Bishops and did not send them to the Lords) and Wales (the Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920).
This is all academic anyway. The facts of the matter are we have 26 unelected people with an automatic right to sit in the UK’s bloated, expensive, and out-dated second chamber.
The House of Lords’ own plan to reduce their numbers doesn’t include the Bishops or Hereditary peers. That means that over the years the Bishops will be making up a larger proportion of the chamber, increasing their power, at a time when the UK is becoming more secular and diverse.
With Bishops gaining membership as a perk of the job, hereditary peers selecting their friends, and the Prime Minister of the day exerting their patronage to appoint who they like, when they like… it seems the only group of people left who can’t decide who sits in the House of Lords are the general public.
We elect mayors, local councils, national assemblies and the House of Commons. In 21st century Britain, it’s time we had fair, democratic representation for the whole of Parliament – including the second chamber.
* A few others include the Bishop of Urgell who is co-Prince (effective joint Head of State) of Andorra. The Bishop of Sodor and Man is an ex officio member of the Legislative Council of the Isle of Man
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