Future composition of the Lords Spiritual

The announcement to both Houses of the Royal Assent to the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure completed the parliamentary stages of the legislation and brought to the fore the issue of “fast tracking” women in the episcopate to the Lords Spiritual. The principle of fast-tracking women to the Bishops’ benches of the Lords was considered as part of the Church of England’s deliberations on the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012-13: see paragraphs 27 and 28 of its written submission to the Joint Committee drafting the Bill, GS MISC 1004; and in the oral evidence that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev and Rt Hon Rowan Williams, gave to the Committee on 15 November 2011, [in his response to Q435].

The issues that remain, therefore, are: how this is to be accomplished; and what form this fast-tracking/positive discrimination will take. With regard to the former, in his speech to the House of Lords on 20 October, the present Archbishop of Canterbury stated, [HL Hansard, 14 Oct 2014, Vol 756(38) Col 168]

 “Synod did not have the power to include in the Measure amendments to the law on the issuing of parliamentary writs, but there has been consultation with all the main parties on the possibility of a very short and simple government Bill which could be taken through this Session [2014/15] to accelerate the arrival of the first women Lords spiritual. There has been solid cross-party support and I very much hope that the Government will be able to find a suitable legislative slot very shortly.

Whilst it might be argued that the content of the Bishoprics Act 1878, which determines the composition of the Lords Spiritual, would fall within “any matter concerning the Church of England” under section 3(6) Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the law relating to the issuing of parliamentary Writs of Summons [i.e. to enable a bishop to take a seat in the Lords] is beyond the scope of this provision[1]. Regardless of these considerations, in practical terms it will be quicker to introduce changes to primary statutory legislation through Parliament than through General Synod.[2]

The consideration is therefore: what will be the procedure for selecting women to serve as Lords Spiritual; and what is the “end point”, or target number to be achieved in the short- and longer-term? The “Buggins’ turn” method of appointing the most senior diocesan bishops according to the date of their ordination is presently defined in section 5 Bishoprics Act 1878 and applies to only 21 of the 26 Lords Spiritual. Thus a woman could be appointed to the See of Canterbury, York, London, Durham, or Winchester without any changes being made to the law, although the Bishop of London will not reach the mandatory retirement-age until 2017 and the Archbishop of York until 2019.

Models of selection

One model is provided by the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012-13. This maintained ex officiis membership of the House of Lords for those five Sees, referred to as “Named Lords Spiritual”, who would continue to receive a Writ of Summons automatically, as at present. The remaining “Ordinary Lords Spiritual”, (“Ordinary ordinaries”?) were to be selected from the bishops of dioceses of the Church of England that are wholly or partly in England. The Ordinary Lords Spiritual would be elected for the term of the Parliament; and the White Paper and draft Bill (but not the Bill as presented, supra) provided that “[t]he Church of England may make the selection in whatever way it considers appropriate”.

The Bishoprics Act 1878 currently states:

The number of bishops sitting in Parliament not to be increased.

The number of Lords Spiritual sitting and voting as Lords of Parliament shall not be increased by the foundation of a new bishopric; and whenever there is a vacancy among such Lords Spiritual by the avoidance of any of the Sees of Canterbury, York, London, Durham, or Winchester, such vacancy shall be supplied by the issue of a writ of summons to the bishop acceding to the see so avoided; and if such vacancy is caused by the avoidance of any see other than one of the five sees aforesaid, such vacancy shall be supplied by the issue of a writ of summons to that bishop of a see in England who having been longest bishop of a see in England has not previously become entitled to such writ: [our emphasis]”

One means of addressing the seniority issue would therefore be to replace the italicized phrase with wording based upon the relevant part of the White Paper, such as:

“such vacancy shall be supplied by the issue of a writ of summons to that bishop of a see in England [that the Church of England considers appropriate to select] who has not previously become entitled to such writ”.

This could be accommodated with a two-clause Bill such as that referred to by the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, (Banbury, Con), in the recent Commons debate, [HC Hansard, 20 Oct 2014 Vol 586(45) Col 723]. It would leave the selection of bishops to the CofE and avoid possibly contentious debate on the number and presence of bishops in the Lords. However, the CofE would be given the task of making the selection itself, which would be free of the mandatory requirement of seniority

Selection of diocesan bishops

The process for selecting diocesan bishops is considered in Peter Owen’s guest post “Choosing diocesan bishops in the Church of England” in which he details the roles of the diocesan Vacancy in See Committee, the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), the Archbishops’ Secretary for Appointments (ASA), the Prime Minster and his appointments secretary for senior ecclesiastical appointments and HM the Queen[3]. Significant components of this process are the list of potential candidates drawn up by the ASA, to which members of the CNC can request other names to be added, and the Archbishops’ statement setting out the needs of the Church of England as a whole. The Rt Rev John Pritchard retired on 31 October 2014; and specific details for the appointment of his successor are provided on the Oxford diocesan web site.

These provisions are geared towards the appointment of diocesan bishops; and in view of the seniority rule there has been no specific requirement to consider their suitability as Lords Spiritual. This would change with the abolition of the seniority rule and would provide the Church with the opportunity to adopt a more strategic approach to its presence in the House of Lords. It would also raise the question of whether the selection of “Ordinary Lords Spiritual” could be addressed by the present appointments scheme, which is focused on vacant diocesan Sees rather than on vacancies in the membership of the Lords Spiritual. Whereas the appointment of diocesan bishops can take a considerable time, as in the case of the Bishop of Guildford, [HL Hansard 3 July 2014, Vol 754(19) Col 1787], the issue of writs of summons to Lords Spiritual operates to a different timetable. With regard to the secular provisions, the Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords (2013) states:

1.10 An archbishop, on appointment or translation to another see, and a bishop who has become entitled to sit or who already has a seat and is translated to another see, applies for a writ to the Lord Chancellor with evidence to support his claim.”

Furthermore, the present appointment of Lords Spiritual is from a different pool of potential candidates who are currently diocesan bishops. Whilst the appointment process for a diocesan bishop takes many factors into account when considering their suitability, including a broad consultation of both church and non-church groups. Canonically, the role of the diocesan bishop as defined in Canon C 18 Of diocesan bishops, which stresses that as “chief pastor of all that are within his diocese” and makes only peripheral reference to “attendance on the Parliament”.

Future Composition of the Lords Spiritual

Whilst the Church gave detailed thought to the juggling of the number of Ordinary Lords Spiritual within the limits proposed by the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012-13, it made only passing reference to the likely possibility of women consecrated as bishops[4], and in his response to Q 466 of the Joint Committee, supra, Archbishop Rowan said [our emphasis]:

 “As and when women become Bishops, we do not particularly want women Bishops to have to wait until 2025 or something before there is any possibility of their being represented on the Bench. Therefore, we want the discretion and flexibility to allow a little fast-tracking there.”

We suspect that this phraseology reflects the sensitive nature of the issue at that time; few are likely to accept such tokenism today. However, it does raise the question: what would be considered as an ideal number of women as Lords Spiritual, and how quickly this should be attained with compromising other possible candidates for the episcopacy? Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) also pointed out in the Commons debate, [HC Hansard, 20 Oct 2014 Vol 586(45) Col 721],

“the battle for decency and the rights of all within the Church is a seamless garment—it does not distinguish between the rights of gay men and those of women in the Church”.

Rather than speculating on how the number of women Lords Spiritual might be selected, it is perhaps more instructive to indicate some information upon which such a selection might be based:

  • Currently women priests account for one-third of all serving clergy; there are 22 women archdeacons and 6 women deans; these numbers are likely to increase, particularly those relating to senior clergy.
  • The mandatory retirement for bishops is 70, which incidentally is the average age of the members of the Upper House, who themselves are not subject to such a requirement. However, in a response to a question from Baroness Howe, the Archbishop of Canterbury said [HL Hansard, 14 Oct 2014, Vol 756(38) Col 186]:

“We have just appointed a Bishop of Hereford, aged 64, six years before obligatory retirement, and I see absolutely no reason … why we should not draw on the experience of those who have spent many years in non-episcopal ministries. It is essential to improving the quality of bishops. As we deepen the pool, we do so in terms of gender but also in terms of looking very openly at those who have the greater experience.”

  • There are currently three former Lords Spiritual in the Upper House: Lord Carey of Clifton, Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Lord Williams of Oystermouth[5].
  • The Crown Nominations Commission meets on two occasions per Vacancy in See to nominate candidates for diocesan bishoprics to the Crown; during 2015 it is scheduled to consider four vacant Sees. The first meeting to consider the See of Gloucester will be on 8 January 2015 and that for Oxford on 14 April.
  • As at 21 October 2014, there were 192 women Members of the House of Lords, about 25% of the total excluding the Lords Spiritual[6]; the White Paper on House of Lords reform noted that there was “widespread agreement that the balance between men and women members in Parliament needs to be improved. Research suggests that the choice of proportional representation should facilitate the election of women to the reformed House of Lords”;
  • More general information is included in the House of Lords Library Note LLN 2014/008 Women in the House of Lords.


[1] Another example is The Crown Office (Writs for Dissolving and Summoning Convocations) Amendment Rules 1975. See also: Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords.

[2] And in any case, even if writs of summons for bishops were covered by section 3(6) of the 1919 Act, it would no doubt be regarded as constitutionally improper for Synod to seek to amend what is, in effect, a matter of Parliamentary procedure.

[3] Peter observes that the present timetable is such that a woman suffragan, who would be selected by a diocesan bishop, could be announced before the earliest possibility for a woman diocesan.

[4] Paragraph 28 of GS MISC 1004.

[5] Lord Habgood retired from the House of Lords 3rd October 2011 and leave of absence was granted to Lord Hope of Thornes for the remainder of the current Parliament, 8 November 2012.

[6] These comprised: 26%, Conservative; 48%, Liberal Democrat; 43%, Labour; and 27% Crossbench. In total there are 763 members plus the 26 Lords Spiritual.

3 thoughts on “Future composition of the Lords Spiritual

  1. I fear that having to actively select which bishops should receive a writ of summons might not be an entirely good thing. Seniority has some advantages … No one can lobby for an early place, whether on their own behalf or that of someone else. No one can claim that they achieved their place on any grounds other than length of service. No one has to decide who will get the places — the bishops themselves, the Archbishops, the Archbishops’ Council, the General Synod, everyone on a parochial electoral roll or equivalent, Parliament, nor any other body. Who would be trusted?

    As I suggested elsewhere, a simple modification of the existing seniority rule ought to be easy to achieve: for example, alternate vacancies among the Lords Spiritual could be filled by the senior female and then the senior male, turn and turn about. If no candidate of the requisite sex is available then that turn is missed.

    • I would suggest that, whatever means are chosen, the current system should be returned to when we reach the point where all diocesan bishops have been appointed after the Measure comes into force. At that point simple seniority ought to be representative of the HoB as a whole.

  2. Pingback: Religion and law round-up – 2nd November | Law & Religion UK

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