As ever, before commencing this article, our usual caveat with regards to partisan politics. Atheism UK does not involve itself with either the promotion or criticism of partisan politics and limits itself to comment on issues which directly address religion/atheism in the political sphere.
Recently the Labour Party’s commission on the UK’s future lead by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown produced its report which came with a number of recommendations (1)
Within this report were recommendations specifically regarding the House of Lords:
37. The House of Lords should be replaced with a new second chamber of Parliament: an Assembly of the Nations and Regions.
38. The new second chamber should complement the House of Commons with a new role of safeguarding the UK constitution, subject to an agreed procedure that sustains the primacy of the House of Commons.
39. The new second chamber must have electoral legitimacy, and should be markedly smaller than the present Lords, chosen on a different electoral cycle – with the precise composition and method of election matters for consultation.
What is interesting is that there is no mention of the current arrangement of the “Lords Spiritual” where 26 Bishops of the Church of England sit as a matter of right in the House of Lords.
One of the major criticisms of the presence of these Bishops in the Lords is that it is undemocratic. They are selected on an ex-officio basis or as a result of length of service as a bishop. Of course, the same argument can be made of every member of the Upper Chamber who is appointed and not democratically elected.
It is also entirely outdated. The UK is the only western democracy with clergy automatically appointed to the legislature. Let us be honest, as a nation that no longer has a population that is majority Christian (let alone majority Church of England) it cannot be right that these individuals have a significant influence in our legislation.
Given the recommendations by the recent commission, there is an implication that the second chamber of Parliament should be an elected one, increasing its democratic legitimacy. This also implies that the days of the Lords Spiritual may be numbered. However, the report does not explicitly state this (in fact it does not mention them at all), and with the Recommendation 39 keeping the precise composition and method of election matters for consultation open, this keeps the question of the Lords Spiritual open.
What is clear, however, is the Church is afraid of yet another weakening of its influence. In an Evening Standard article from December 2022 the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby criticized the plans stating that his political role was part of his “calling” and that the Lords plays a “vital role in Parliamentary Democracy” (2)
With these proposals we have an opportunity to reduce the influence of the Church on the State. If these proposals go through in a way that does end the appointment of the Lords Spiritual, and this is an opportunity we as an organization and as individual atheists must take if we can. We must be aware of when the proposed public consultation on these matters opens and we need to contribute to ensure that these reforms, if they go ahead, include the abolition of these undemocratic and unrepresentative bishops.
We will keep you informed as to the opening and any progress with regards to the consultation and give you the opportunity to get involved.
(1) Labour Party (2022) A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy. [Online] Downdloaded from: Commission-on-the-UKs-Future.pdf (labour.org.uk) [Accessed 08/01/2023].
(2) Dougherty, H., Griffiths, R. and; Croft, E. (2022) ‘Archbishop of Canterbury defends ‘vital’ Lords from Labour’s abolition plans,’ Evening Standard Online 07/12/22. Downloaded from: Archbishop of Canterbury defends the “vital” Lords from Labour’s abolishment plans | Evening Standard [Accessed 08/01/2023].
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Atheism UK.