UK’s House of Lords under fire for reserved seats for bishops

The United Kingdom’s House of Lords is facing criticism for its unique inclusion of 26 Church of England bishops and archbishops. Labelled as “Lords Spiritual,” these clerics automatically hold seats in the unelected upper chamber, a centuries-old tradition that has sparked debate among democracy advocates and secularists.

While the UK boasts itself as a pioneer of democratic parliaments, it stands alone globally as the sole sovereign state reserving legislative seats for religious figures. The only other country sharing this distinction is Iran, an Islamic theocracy.

Recently thrust into the spotlight, the Anglican bishops played a crucial role in scrutinizing Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s contentious plan to deport migrants to Rwanda. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the highest-ranking cleric in the Church of England, criticized the proposal, stating it would lead the UK down a “damaging path” by outsourcing its “legal and moral responsibilities for refugees and asylum seekers.”

The presence of the Lords Spiritual, dating back to medieval times, is rooted in the Church of England’s position as the established church in England. Despite their historical significance, critics argue that the reserved seats are out of step with a modern and increasingly non-religious Britain.

Kathy Riddick of Humanists UK emphasized the discrepancy, pointing out that other UK churches, like the Church of Scotland, do not have reserved seats. Calls for reform have been persistent, with over 100 MPs and Lords urging the repeal of the Church of England’s automatic representation in 2020, drawing parallels with Iran’s legislative practices.

However, political experts highlight the limited influence of the Lords Spiritual, emphasizing the vast difference in power between them and Shia clerics in Iran. The bishops, known for their independent-minded approach, often have low attendance due to full-time roles running dioceses, and their votes rarely sway final results.

As the controversy persists, the House of Lords faces a potential threat if the opposition Labour party, led by Keir Starmer, wins a general election later this year as expected.

Starmer has deemed the upper chamber “undemocratic” and “indefensible,” expressing a desire to replace it with an elected “Assembly of the Nations and Regions.” The clash between tradition, religious representation, and democratic ideals continues to unfold in the heart of the UK’s legislative system.

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