Unelected ‘Lords Spiritual’ enjoy automatic seats in U.K. Parliament

Unelected ‘Lords Spiritual’ enjoy automatic seats in U.K. Parliament June 7, 2021

Blogger’s note: Today’s post on so-called “Lords Spiritual” begins a series of Godzooks! articles focused on the United Kingdom regarding the intractability of national religious traditions. Church and state in the U.K. still remain entertwined despite more than half of Britons today identifying as non-religious and 88 percent unaffiliated with the nation’s official Protestant Christian faith. This paradox reflects on the United States’ own continuing struggles in cordoning off religion from government, schools and other public institutions and activities.

The 16th century English monarch Henry VIII is considered the first head of the Church of England, originally a Protestant church that maintained a number of aspects of Roman Catholicism. Henry left Catholicism and created his own church so he could divorce his Spanish queen. (Ann Longmore-Etheridge, Flickr, Public Domain)

Did you know that 26 seats in the U.K. Parliament’s House of Lords currently are automatically awarded to Anglican (Church of England) archbishops and bishops, so-called “Lords Spiritual”?

That would be the same as arbitrarily dedicating a proportionate number of seats for high-ranking Protestant clergy in the U.S. House of Representatives, allowing them — as their British cohorts are able — to submit, promote and vote on legislation that greatly affects the temporal and political life of the nation.

How is this appropriate or even allowable in governments that are ostensibly secular in nature in societies that are growing ever more nonreligious by the day? At least a quarter of Americans now identify as nonreligious and unaffiliated with any creed (many are atheists), and this demographic has been surging for decades.

Two words: Religion and tradition.

For millennia, human beings have been in almost universal thrall to supernatural notions (religion) to supposedly explain their lives and protect them from known and unknown dangers. It has also been a persistent part of human nature that people choose to addict themselves to all manner of tradition, which they ever loathe to discontinue even when reason strongly counsels otherwise.

Since before the Enlightenment, humankind’s collective substantive knowledge about the world has expanded, and since the turn of the 20th century that expansion has been stunningly exponential. In the meantime, religion has come under withering secular assault in Western societies like the U.S. and U.K.

Nonbelievers would like to say that this change is due to peoples’ increasing confidence in the mountains of factual realities discovered by science and critical thinking, and an expanding awareness that supernatural concepts, unverifiable and untenable in a material universe, are manifestly untrue and, thus, obsolete.

Nonetheless, as the lordly, privileged bishops in Britain’s Parliament attest, as do official Christian prayers by government-paid chaplains on the floor of the U.S. Congress, religious traditions die hard even when they are no longer needed or wanted by large segments of populations.

Fortunately, the numbers don’t look promising for U.K. believers in non-separation of church and state.

A new survey shows Britons, by a three-to-one margin oppose continuing to reserve places in Parliament for Anglican (Church of England) bishops, according to Humanists UK. Fifty-three percent of U.K. adults favor ending the practice and requiring general election to any seat, while only 16 percent favor the status quo. The result consistently applied to respondents from the country’s three main political parties.

To rectify this obsolete practice, House of Lords’ Bill 68, also known as the Taverne Bill (after its originator, Lord “Dick” Taverne), was introduced in January 2020, proposing that Church of England bishops should “no longer to be entitled to membership of the House of Lords.” The bill had only progressed to a second reading by early May of this year. In introducing the legislation, Lord Taverne commented:

“One of the great achievements of the enlightenment was the separation of church and state. Theocracies in which religion is still part of the state hardly shining examples of democracy and the protection human rights — show how important this achievement was.

“Although the bishops are liberal minded by comparison, the influence of the Church of England, despite the steep and ongoing decline in the number of Anglicans, should not be underestimated.

“And the separation of church and state is far from complete in the UK. The continued presence of bishops in the Lords is an anachronism that should be addressed.”

In a recent news release, UK Humanists seconded Taverne’s disquiet:

“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.”

However, national sentiment as that expressed by the YouGov survey does not necessarily translate into successful legislation. Indeed, on May 28 the U.S. Senate voted down a bill to establish a commission to investigate the bloody and lethal Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol while Congress was in session, despite 52 percent of Americans favoring such a commission and only 29 percent opposed, according to new YouGov/The Economist survey results reported by Newsweek.

For many people, always maintaining the status quo is preferable to doing what is right and reasonable. That’s the conservative disease.

As evidence, note that the U.K., one of the West’s most scientifically advanced, secular societies in the 21st century is also one of only two nations, along with Iran, that allows automatic representation of unelected religious clerics in its legislature. Meanwhile, hardly any Britons follow that church or any church anymore.

And Queen Elizabeth is still, officially, the supreme governor of the Church of England.

That’s what church and state looks like in a tight embrace, and why ending religious privilege and tradition in the public square — in the U.K., as in America — is so excruciatingly slow.


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