26 bishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords. Known as the Lords Spiritual, they read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play a full and active role in the life and work of the Upper House.
The Lords Spiritual are:
The five occupants of those diocesan sees that are permanently represented:
Plus the 21 longest serving English diocesan bishops (in order of entry to the House):
Christian religious leaders have had an active role in the legislative affairs of the country since before the formation of the Church of England. Prior to the 11th century feudal landlords and religious leaders were regularly consulted by Saxon kings.
In the 14th century, religious leaders and landed gentry formed the ‘Upper House’ (the Lords) as, respectively, the Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. Local representatives formed the ‘Lower House’ (the Commons). Apart from a brief interruption following the English Civil war, religious leaders have played an active role in parliament ever since.
The continuing place of Anglican bishops in the Lords reflects our enduring constitutional arrangement, with an established Church of England and its Supreme Governor as Monarch and Head of State.
The Bishopric of Manchester Act of 1847 limits the number of places for Lords Spiritual to 26.
Which bishops become Lords Spiritual?
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester are ex-officio members of the House of Lords.
The remaining 21 places on the Bishops’ Bench are occupied by the longest-serving bishops of English dioceses. As there are 40 eligible dioceses* there are more bishops than there are places for Lords Spiritual, so those bishops awaiting seats come to the House in turn by seniority when a vacancy arises on the Bench.
In addition to the seniority system of entry, under the terms of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015, until 2025 if any woman is appointed to be a diocesan bishop, she will automatically join the House of Lords when the next vacancy occurs on the Bench (or straight away if it is to one of the five ex-officio sees).
When diocesan bishops retire (compulsory at 70), their membership of the House also ceases. Occasionally some have become life peers, and this is usually the case for former archbishops.
Roles & Responsibilities
There is always at least one Lord Spiritual in the House of Lords when it is sitting, to read prayers at the start of the day and to participate in the business of the House. The official proceedings of the House cannot begin until prayers have been read. Attendance in the House to read prayers and attend to the legislative business of that day is determined by the Lords Spiritual on a rota basis, with each bishop being on duty for one or two sitting weeks each year. Bishops also attend the House if they have a committee meeting, or take part on an ad-hoc basis, when matters of interest and concern to them are before it.
They sit as individual Lords Spiritual (there is no ‘Bishops’ Party’) and as such they have much in common with the independent Crossbenchers and those who are not party-affiliated. As non-aligned members, their activities in the Upper House are not subject to a whip. A Convenor represents the Lords Spiritual to the other parties and groupings in the House, calls and chairs meetings and ensures that the Bench is well resourced and organised. The current Convenor is the Bishop of Birmingham, Rt Revd David Urquhart.
The Lords Spiritual each shadow one or two specific areas of policy on a voluntary agreed basis, which is usually aligned with their expertise, interests or a formal position already held within the Church of England.
Like other members of the Lords, bishops are not elected by a constituency. Unlike other members, their diocesan role means they are in touch with geographical areas of the country, which often informs the contributions they make in the House.
Their presence in the Lords is an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God’s word and to lead people in prayer. Bishops provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House and, while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.
*The two dioceses that do not send bishops to the Lords are the Diocese of Europe and the Diocese of Sodor and Man (whose bishop sits in the Manx parliament, the Tynwald).
As at February 2017, the diocesan bishops of the Church of England not currently in the House of Lords, but awaiting seats (in the order that they will enter when a vacancy arises):