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The Lords Spiritual of the United Kingdom, also called Spiritual Peers, are the 26 bishops of the established Church of England who serve in the House of Lords along with the Lords Temporal. The national yet free Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian in polity, is not represented by spiritual peers. The Anglican churches in Wales and Northern Ireland are no longer established churches and are therefore not represented either.
The Lords Spiritual normally do not vote on matters of law or state in the House of Lords, but they have done so in special cases, such as during the passage of the Parliament Act 1911.
Ranks and titles
The Church of England comprises 44 dioceses, each led by a bishop. The diocesan bishops of Canterbury and York are archbishops, who also have oversight over their respective provinces. Two dioceses—the Diocese of Sodor and Man (the Isle of Man) and the Diocese of Gibraltar (Continental Europe) —lie outside Great Britain.
The occupants of the five "great sees" — Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester — are always spiritual peers and Lords of Parliament. The Bishop of Sodor and Man and the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe may not sit in the House of Lords regardless of seniority as their dioceses lie outside Great Britain. (The former, however, sits on the Legislative Council of the Isle of Man ex officio.) Of the remaining 37 bishops, the 21 most senior sit in the House of Lords.
Theoretically, the power to elect archbishops and bishops is vested in the diocesan cathedral's college of canons. Practically, however, the choice of the archbishop or bishop is made prior to the election. The prime minister chooses from amongst a set of nominees proposed by the Crown Nominations Commission; the sovereign then instructs the college of canons to elect the nominated individual as a bishop or archbishop. See appointment of Church of England bishops.
Seniority is determined by total length of service as an English diocesan bishop (that is to say, it is not lost by translation to another see).
Authorities differ on whether the Lords Spiritual are peers. Some contend that archbishops and diocesan bishops are peers during their tenures in the House of Lords, while others argue that only the Lords Temporal are peers. Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage, for example, unequivocally states, "Diocesan Bishops of England in the Lords are — peers of the kingdom." On the other hand, the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 suggests, "the spiritual lords are not now regarded as peers."
Even during the early years of the Peerage, the position of bishops was unclear. During the reign of King Richard II, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared, "of right and by the custom of the realm of England it belongeth to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the time being as well as others his suffragans, brethren and fellow Bishops, Abbots and Priors and other prelates whatsoever, — to be present in person in all the King's Parliaments whatsoever as Peers of the Realm." The claim was neither agreed nor disagreed to, however, by Parliament.
The Lords Spiritual at first declared themselves entirely outside the jurisdiction of secular authorities; the question of trial in the House of Lords did not arise. When papal authority was great, the King could do little but admit a lack of jurisdiction over the prelates. Later, however, when the power of the Pope in England was reduced, the Lords Spiritual came under the authority of the secular courts. The jurisdiction of the common courts was clearly established by the time of Henry VIII, who declared himself head of the Church of England in place of the Pope, ending the political power of the Roman Catholic Church in England.
Despite their failure to be tried as temporal peers in the House of Lords, it remained unclear whether the Lords Spiritual were indeed peers. In 1688, the issue arose during the trial of the Seven Bishops—William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury; Sir Jonathan Trelawny, 3rd Baronet, Bishop of Winchester; Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells; John Lake, Bishop of Chester; William Lloyd, Bishop of Worcester; Francis Turner, Bishop of Ely and Thomas White, Bishop of Peterborough—by a common jury. The charge was that a petition sent by the Bishops constituted seditious libel; the Bishops argued that they had the right to petition the Sovereign at any time, while the prosecution charged that such a right was only permissible when Parliament was in session (which, at the time of the delivery of the petition, it was not). If the bishops were only Lords of Parliament, and not peers, their right to petition would be vitiated while Parliament was dissolved. Peers, however, were and still are counsellors of the Sovereign whether Parliament is in session or not; therefore, if the bishops were indeed peers, they would be free to send petitions. Since there was no doubt that the petition was actually sent, while the Court still ruled the bishops not guilty, it appears that it was taken for granted that the bishops were counsellors of the Crown.
Nevertheless, the Standing Orders of the House of Lords provide, "Bishops to whom a writ of summons has been issued are not Peers but are Lords of Parliament."
Early in England's history, Lords Spiritual—including lesser clergymen such as abbots—outnumbered Lords Temporal. Between 1536 and 1540, however, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, thereby removing the seats of the abbots. For the first time and thereafter, Lords Spiritual formed a minority in the House of Lords.
In addition to the 21 older dioceses (including four in Wales), Henry created six new ones of which five survived (see historical development of Church of England dioceses); and then for nearly three centuries no new sees were created. The number of lords spiritual remained at 26 all this while.
Bishops of the Church of Scotland traditionally sat in the Parliament of Scotland but were excluded in 1638 following the Scottish Reformation. There are no longer bishops in the Church of Scotland in the traditional sense of the word, and that Church has never sent members to sit in the Westminster House of Lords.
Bishops and archbishops of the Church of Ireland were entitled to sit in the Irish House of Lords as Lords Spiritual. They obtained representation in the Westminster House of Lords after the union of Ireland and Great Britain in 1801. Of the Church of Ireland's ecclesiastics, four (one archbishop and three bishops) were to sit at any one time, with the members rotating at the end of every parliamentary session (which normally lasted approximately one year). The Church of Ireland, however, was disestablished in 1871, and thereafter ceased to be represented by Lords Spiritual.
In the 19th century the dioceses of the Church of England began gradually to come under review again. However an increase in the bench of bishops was not considered politically expedient, and so steps were undertaken to prevent it. In 1836, the first new bishopric was founded, that of Ripon; but it was balanced out by the merger of the Bishoprics of Bristol and Gloucester. (They were later divided again.) The creation of the Bishopric of Manchester was also planned but delayed until St Asaph and Bangor could be merged. They never were; but in 1844, the Bishopric of Manchester Act went ahead anyway with an alternative means to maintain the 26-bishop limit in the House of Lords: the seniority-based proviso which has been maintained to this day.
The 26 Lords Spiritual currently represent just under four percent of the total membership of the House of Lords.
The presence of religious leaders in the British legislature is strongly opposed by secularist organisations such as the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society who have consistently campaigned for their removal.
- Davies, Michael. (2003) Companion to the Standing Orders and guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords, 19th ed.
- Owen, Peter. (2007) "Choosing Diocesan Bishops in the Church of England."