Composition of the Lords Spiritual

During the Westminster Hall debate Women’s Contribution to the Ordained Ministry (Church of England), 20 Mar 2014 : Vol 577 Col 377WH, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), commented

 “Right hon. and hon. Members have asked about the situation of women in the House of Lords.  This House will not be surprised to learn that I have been discussing that issue with the Leader of the House of Lords and the Leader of the House of Commons. Of course, the position of bishops in the House of Lords—the Lords Spiritual—is that they are Members of the House of Lords. It is therefore a question of who is summoned to Parliament. It is not something that can simply be resolved by a Measure of the General Synod; it will require primary legislation. [See comments below].

However, I think that it would be fair for me to summarize the position of the Government, as I understand it, thus. In terms of primary legislation, they will seek to facilitate as speedily as possible what the Church of England feels would be most appropriate in these circumstances. I think that discussions are now taking place within the Church of England. I understand that the Lord Bishop of Leicester, who convenes the Lords Spiritual, is in negotiations with various groups to give some thought to how best that can be achieved.

This was followed by a piece in the Church Times on 11 April,Officials look for ways to fast-track women into Lordsalthough it contained no further explanation on the how this might be achieved.  However, a more considered starting point would be the Church’s deliberations in 2011 in anticipation of the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012-13, both in its anticipation of women members of the Lords Spiritual, and equally importantly, the reassessment of the Church’s position in the Upper House. The approach taken by the coalition government is also instructive.

The position of the Church of England on the reform of the House of Lords and the possible directions are contained in its written submission, (GS MISC 1004), to the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill and the oral evidence of the Most Rev and Rt Hon Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury to the Joint Committee on 15 November 2011.  In his response to Baroness Young of Hornsey, [Q435], he stated:

“You will notice in our submission that we have taken this on board to the extent of suggesting that Clause 28(4) in the draft Bill should drop, to allow the church the flexibility, when women are allowed to be ordained Bishops, to fast-track, so to speak, the first women in that position on to the Bishops’ Benches.”

The relevant part of the Church’s written submission is in paragraphs 27 and 28, [emphasis in original]

“27. Given the intention expressed in Clause 27 (6) and elsewhere to allow the Church of England to determine its own method of selection for Ordinary Lords Spiritual[1] for each coming parliament in a fully reformed Upper House – and replacements for those that retire or resign mid-term – there is a case for affording the Church the broadest possible choice from among its diocesan bishops at an earlier opportunity than at the end of the two-term transitional process. This would require the removal of Clause 28 (4) and clarification that Clause 28 (1) referred to all diocesan bishops and not simply existing Lords Spiritual.

28. This would enable the Lords Spiritual in the transitional parliaments to be selected from the widest possible pool of those who were diocesan bishops at the time. This could be of particular significance that if the General Synod were to approve the present draft legislation to enable women to become bishops.”


A number of important principles arose from in the discussions on a reformed Upper House:

– Acceptance by the coalition government of the Church’s sole right to select Lords Spiritual: the White Paper and clause 27 of the Draft Bill place a requirement on the Church of England to make the selection of diocesan bishops to serve as Ordinary Lords Spiritual “in whatever way it considers appropriate”;

– The Church’s acknowledgement that the occupants of  the five “senior sees” inevitably have greater competing outside commitments than other bishops, and in the interests of maximizing the continued effectiveness of the service that the Lords Spiritual offer parliament there may be a case for a greater proportion of the membership of the Bishops‟ Bench to be drawn from the numbers of the other diocesan bishops, [GS 1004, para. 12 and 13];

– The Church’s apparent desire for the ability to select of Lords Spiritual “from the widest possible pool of those who were diocesan bishops at the time, with particular reference to women who become bishops”.

With regard to the Church’s selection of Lords Spiritual, Section 3(6) Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 provides that

“A measure may relate to any matter concerning the Church of England, and may extend to the amendment or repeal in whole or in part of any Act of Parliament, including this Act:

Provided that a measure shall not make any alteration in the composition or powers or duties of the Ecclesiastical Committee, or in the procedure in Parliament prescribed by section four of this Act.”

However, General Synod does not have the vires in relation to provisions concerning writs of summons (to permit bishops to take their place in the Lords) which are issued by direction of the Lord Chancellor from the office of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery.

When the House of Lords Reform Bill was dropped, we commented that instead of proclaiming Bishops safe, as Clegg drops Lords’ Bill’, the headline in the Church Times should have read ‘Bishops miss opportunity for strategic reorganization’, and looked with interest at the direction that would be given by the new Archbishop. The ordination of women into the episcopate now provides a further opportunity to address the composition and work of the Lords Spiritual – an opportunity for which some of the preparatory work has been undertaken, but one that will surely raise again the representation of the Church of England in the House of Lords.

[1] The Bill envisaged the continuation of the principle within section 5 Bishoprics Act 1878 with the Lords Spiritual consisting of five “Named Lords Spiritual”, i.e. “persons in a named office: (a) Archbishop of Canterbury; (b) Archbishop of York; (c) Bishop of London; (d) Bishop of Durham; or (e) Bishop of Winchester, and the balance comprising “Ordinary Lords Spiritual”.

2 thoughts on “Composition of the Lords Spiritual

  1. Pingback: Religion and law round up – 27th April | Law & Religion UK

  2. Pingback: Women in the episcopate – Bishops’ update | Law & Religion UK

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