The House on Friday will be debating a motion moved by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am regularly asked about the role of the Bishops in the House. It clearly fascinates some people. There is interest in what they do as well as what can and should be done about the representation of other faiths.
There are 26 Lords Spiritual: the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester and 21 other Bishops by seniority. They are a distinct group in the House: they do not sit on the cross-benches but have their own – the front Bishops’ Bench is the only one in the House with armrests. They are the only members who leave upon retirement from their posts. Some, usually former Archbishops, return as life peers.
Their attendance varies – there is a duty Bishop to read the prayers at the start of a sitting – though it is unusual for there to be more than two or three in the chamber at any one time. Though they sit by reason of their position in the Anglican Church, they speak – as with all members – as individuals. That is often very apparent, since what one Bishop says is not always assented to by the others. If there are two Bishops taking part in a vote, it is not unusual to see them enter separate lobbies. This applies as much on moral as on other issues. The Church of England truly is a broad church.
The Bishops sit in the House by virtue of the fact that the Church of England is the established church. In discussions about reform, there is often uncertainty as to what to do about them. Some people would like to get rid of them. Some would like to see their number reduced, not least in order to enable members of other faiths to enter the House. The problem with appointing clerics of other faiths is that many religions do not have a hierarchical structure. Who do you appoint? The Roman Catholic Church does have a hierarchical structure but their leaders are prohibited by their own church from sitting in the legislature. (I gather the late Cardinal Hume was approached but had to decline.) The result is reliance on appointing lay members of particular faiths or individual clerics who have held particular positions, such as former presidents of the Methodist Conference.
Though only Anglican Bishops sit ex officio, the House does have members drawn from a wide range of religions (Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Methodist, Roman Catholic etc) as well as from none: there is a humanist group in the House. The House benefits from this breadth as well as from the turnover in Bishops, some of whom, by reason of their diocesan experience, have knowledge of inner city problems and others of rural poverty.