House of Lords Library

House of Lords: Lords Spiritual

Published Monday, September 4, 2017

This House of Lords Library briefing looks at the role of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. The membership of the House of Lords includes 26 Church of England Archbishops and Bishops who sit on an ex officio basis as ‘Lords Spiritual’. Their right to sit and vote in the House having been established by ancient usage and by statute. They currently comprise around 3 percent of the total membership.

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As Members of the House of Lords, the Lords Spiritual have the same rights as life and hereditary Peers, the ‘Lords Temporal’. A Bishop reads prayers at the start of each sitting day and Bishops regularly participate in the business of the House. A Convenor of the Lords Spiritual is appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and coordinates the work of the Bishops in the Lords. Between the 2005–06 and 2016–17 sessions, the Bishops attendance averaged 18 percent, compared to the whole house average of 58.5 percent. A number of commentators have observed that the Bishops’ relatively low attendance is the result of having a wide range of duties in their dioceses. Arguments made about reserved seats for the Bishops typically focus on their historical role in the UK constitution, their contribution to the work of the House of Lords, their role as representatives, the potential impact of their removal on the established church and the role of Bishops in passing church legislation.

Since 1847, the number of Bishops in the House of Lords has been fixed at 26. No cap on numbers exists for other category of Member. Five of the 26 (the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester) are automatically granted a seat. Previously, when a vacancy arose in one of the remaining 21 spaces not reserved, the next most senior Bishop replaced them. Until 2025, under the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015, any such vacancy is now filled by a female English diocesan Bishop, ahead of any male. Bishops are required to retire at the age of 70. 

When a vacancy arises in the 40 Church of England dioceses that are eligible to send Bishops to the House of Lords, the Church of England follows a procedure for choosing a Bishop. This involves consultation with the local community and discussions about the needs of the Church as a whole. A Crown Nominations Commission will hold interviews with the candidates and vote on a first and second choice. When a candidate has accepted, the Prime Minister then advises the Sovereign to formally nominate the candidate.

Lords Library notes LLN-2017-0056

Author: Samuel White

Topics: Church and state, House of Lords, Members of the Lords

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House of Lords Library

The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.