The Religious Privilege in the House of Lords

The Religious Privilege in the House of Lords August 14, 2016

The religious nature of aspects of the House of Lords (HOL) came up in another thread here at ATP yesterday, so I thought I would explain how the HOL works in this regard, particularly for foreign readers.

Before concentrating on the religious angle, let’s allow Wikipedia to explain the basics:

Unlike the elected House of Commons, all members of the House of Lords (excluding 92 hereditary peers elected among themselves) are appointed.[5] The membership of the House of Lords is drawn from the peerage and is made up of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. The Lords Spiritual are 26 bishops in the establishedChurch of England.[6] Of the Lords Temporal, the majority are life peers who are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, or on the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. However, they also include some hereditary peers including four dukes.[7]Membership was once an entitlement of all hereditary peers, other than those in the peerage of Ireland, but under the House of Lords Act 1999, the right to membership was restricted to 92 hereditary peers.[8] Very few of these are female since most hereditary peerages can only be inherited by men.[9]

While the House of Commons has a defined 650-seat membership, the number of members in the House of Lords is not fixed. There are currently 797 sitting Lords. The House of Lords is the only upper house of any bicameral parliament to be larger than its respective lower house.[10]

The House of Lords scrutinises bills that have been approved by the House of Commons.[11] It regularly reviews and amends Bills from the Commons.[12] While it is unable to prevent Bills passing into law, except in certain limited circumstances,[13] it can delay Bills and force the Commons to reconsider their decisions.[14] In this capacity, the House of Lords acts as a check on the House of Commons that is independent from the electoral process.[15][16][17] Bills can be introduced into either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Members of the Lords may also take on roles as government ministers. The House of Lords has its own support services, separate from the Commons, including the House of Lords Library.

The Queen’s Speech is delivered in the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. In addition to its role as the upper house, until the establishment of the Supreme Court in 2009, the House of Lords, through the Law Lords, acted as the final court of appeal in the British judicial system.[18] The House also has a Church of England role, in that Church Measures must be tabled within the House by the Lords Spiritual.

It is well worth checking the wiki page for the interesting image showing the political make-up of the House.

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society (of which I am a member) recently wrote an article on the subject which included the following:


Until the suppression of the monasteries in 1539, the so-called Lords Spiritual, swelled by abbots and priors, formed the majority of the Lords. Despite the name, they were there largely because they were huge landowners. We will not explore in this blog the secularist questions of how they came to own so much land and the power – including the imposition of taxes such as tithes – which this gave them. After 1539 the lords spiritual were limited to the bishops.

The Civil War heralded the removal of bishops from 1642, but this lasted only until the Clergy Act 1661.

Particularly with the growth of cities with the industrial revolution, the number of bishoprics started to multiply out of control and a stop had to be called to their representation in the Lords. This came with the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 with the number capped at 26, all from English dioceses. There were never Scottish bishops as its “established” Church of Scotland does not have any. Irish and Welsh bishops were excluded following disestablishment in 1869 and 1914 respectively.

Current position

The 26 (out of 43 bishoprics) comprise the arch/bishops of Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester with the rest going to the longest serving, although some changes have had to be made to fast track women. Bishops retire automatically at the age of 70 but some are given life peerages thereafter. Therefore, although there are only 26 “official” bishops, there are many more on the other benches as well as other religious figures such as former chief rabbis and what seems like an endless procession of self-declared Christian peers and those from other religions.

So, shockingly, by historic standards the current proportion of Lords Spiritual as they are referred to, 3% of the total, is as low as it has ever been, apart from the brief period when there were none at all. Having said that, The House of Lords is the only Parliament in a western democracy to grant any ex officio seats to clerics.

You can see the historical nature of the religious privilege therein. You can see their present legislative functions here and how they are being further curtailed, here (something which has been ongoing over several Parliament Acts). It is increasingly difficult for the HOL to definitively veto a bill from the House of Commons.

By Terry Moore - "House of Lords Chamber: throne", archived version of the page from the UK Parliament website's image gallery, which is out of service as of February 2011.,
By Terry Moore – “House of Lords Chamber: throne”, archived version of the page from the UK Parliament website’s image gallery, which is out of service as of February 2011.,

Wood continues:


There is a duty bishop to say prayers at the start of every session, and before the Supreme Court was established, the duty bishop even opened the deliberations of the Law Lords with prayers, too.

The saying of prayers is done in secret, with non-parliamentarians excluded from the chamber, every entrance barred and cameras turned off. Prayers are said with the members kneeling on the benches with their backs to the centre, which is apparently ideal for those carrying swords.

The prayers have remained unchanged for centuries, for example “Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign, and Princes decree justice; and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom, and understanding; we thine unworthy servants …”

Our recently deceased and much-missed Honorary Associate, Lord Avebury, never attended prayers, always standing along with many others outside the chamber until they were finished. He always maintained the principle that prayers should not form part of official business; any if there were any they should be said in a different place. He also objected to the practical consequence: those who pray always getting the best seats, or even a seat at all – some even go to prayers for this reason. With his solution of any prayers being held elsewhere, those that wished to pray and those that didn’t could all enter the chamber at the same time – after which official business could commence.

The invited guests at his memorial meeting included scores of parliamentarians, including two party leaders and the Lords Speaker. Such an opportunity could not be, and wasn’t, missed to remind them all what Lord Avebury thought about Parliamentary prayers, and indeed bishops.

Religious privilege hangs on, albeit tenuously. It’s about time such anachronisms are left only to the annals of history.

So, hopefully an informative amalgam of sources referring to the religiosity of the Hous of Lords.

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