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Why Are the Lords Spiritual Still a Thing?

Why Are the Lords Spiritual Still a Thing?

The Lords Spiritual

The House of Lords is contentious as it is. I am, however, baffled as to why the Lords Spiritual are still a thing. I understand that despite our best efforts, the United Kingdom is not a secular state. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said in no uncertain terms that “Britain is a Christian country”. Theresa May, a vicar’s daughter, has spoken of how her faith guides her decision making. And, of course, Tony Blair made some rather bizarre comments about how God told him to invade Iraq.

Parliament opens with prayers. The Archbishop of Canterbury anoints our Head of State with magical oil. At various times, significant figures are required to profess some sort of allegiance to the Christian faith. On and on it goes.

When you take all of that into account, it should be no surprise that an unelected contingent of bishops sits in our legislature. My question is, why?

It’s ridiculous enough that some members of the House of Lords are appointed solely to boost the strength of one of the three main political parties. However, there is something far more absurd that twenty-six bishops are given a seat for being bishops. In a country where people increasingly self-identify as “no religion”, one has to ask what makes these bishops so unique?

An Increasing Irrelevance

The Lords Spiritual and the Church of England argue that they are “in touch with a great range of opinions”. They might be aware of many different views, but I dare say that they’re not in touch with the majority. Indeed, according to a 2013 study, only 16% of the population affiliate themselves with the Church of England. The average attendance for Church of England services is only around 1.4% of the population according to the Church’s figures. And do note, it continues to fall.

Why do we not give a spot to twenty-six nurses because they’re nurses? I’m sure many would consider that patently absurd. However, I dare say that nurses enjoy greater popular support than the Church of England.

Then there is the issue of what they actually do in the House of Lords. Not a lot, though of course, they get expenses. In 2010, our Lords Spiritual claimed £136,000 in expenses from the House of Lords, on top of £1.4m from the Church of England. I suppose we should be happy that the Church is fronting most of the cost. We must not forget the “grace-and-favour” houses either, many of which are medieval palaces! They also live rent free in their diocese. Sounds very cushy!

Pricey for Less Than One Bishop

On average, less than one bishop turns up to vote. The most to turn up in recent times was during a vote on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Unsurprisingly, of the fourteen that showed up, nine voted to deny the bill a second reading, and five abstained. The Archbishop of Canterbury was very clear in his opposition to the bill at the time. He’s eased up somewhat now. Hmm, yes. Perhaps someone pointed out that Christianity did not invent marriage, thus the Church that was created so a fat king could get a divorce does not hold supreme authority over the institution? I don’t know.

Therefore, despite widespread support for same-sex marriage in the UK, more than half of the Lords Spiritual decided to rock up for a change, solely to try and derail the bill due to their religious beliefs. While, of course, we can respect their beliefs, some of us also believe that religion should not direct law. That needs to be recognised as well. Of course, it is only since 2014 that the Church of England has permitted female bishops. Perhaps the “great range of opinions” they’re in touch with are those from the 12th Century?

By Whose Authority?

Furthermore, on what grounds do the Lords Spiritual claim their authority? By giving them their often-unused seat in the legislature, the government grants a special privilege to them. Members of other religious communities are not given places simply because of their religion. Nor are atheists allowed places on the grounds of being an atheist.

In fairness, Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, has called for “leading members” of other faith communities to be granted a place in the Lords. From my point of view, that creates even more religious involvement and interference in what should be a secular society. They might make a pig’s ear of it sometimes, but the separation of Church and State was a bloody good idea from the Americans.

Time for Real Reform?

Given that atheism/no-religion will be the dominant “belief system” in the UK in the not-too-distant future, I think it’s time to wave goodbye to this relic from antiquity. The Lords Spiritual may claim moral authority bestowed upon them by their God, but that alone doesn’t give them the right to sit in the legislature and cast their votes on issues that affect the vast majority of peoples who do not adhere to their beliefs. When House of Lords reform is next mooted, I say we should seriously consider whether the Lords Spiritual warrant their continued place.

1 Comment

  1. phil

    Undoubtedly the answer is tradition. I love my country but we’re too invested in tradition so much so that too often we accept things because they’re just the way it has always been.

    Reply

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