1. Who they are and how they are selected

The House of Lords membership includes 26 places reserved for archbishops and bishops of the Church of England. They are collectively referred to as the ‘lords spiritual’.

At present, there are 26 members of the lords spiritual that make up 3.3% of the House of Lords membership. As at 20 December 2023, there were 784 members in the House of Lords, excluding 34 members who were either suspended, on leave of absence, or disqualified as senior members of the judiciary.[1]

The lords spiritual sit on an ‘ex officio’ basis, which means they only remain in the House whilst they hold the office of bishop. Since 1847, the number of bishops in the House of Lords has been capped in legislation at 26. The following five are automatically granted a seat:

  • The archbishop of Canterbury
  • The archbishop of York
  • The bishop of London
  • The bishop of Durham
  • The bishop of Winchester

The remaining 21 places are not reserved and are filled by bishops from dioceses in England that are eligible to send bishops to the House of Lords.

All bishops are required to retire at the age of 70. Previously, any vacancies were filled by the next most senior bishop. However, since 2015, any such vacancy has been filled by a female English diocesan bishop ahead of any male. This rule was introduced in the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 and is set to remain in place until 2025. There are currently six female bishops in the House of Lords.

The House of Lords Library briefing ‘House of Lords: Lords spiritual’ (4 September 2017) provides detailed information on the historical development and appointment process of the lords spiritual.

2. Role in the House of Lords

The lords spiritual have the same rights as other House of Lords members. However, as lords spiritual, they are independent members and sit by virtue of the office they hold. They can take part in all business of the House, including tabling and asking questions to the government, leading or speaking in debates, scrutinising legislation, voting and serving on committees or all-party parliamentary groups.[2] The lords spiritual are also responsible for leading the prayer at the start of each sitting day in the House. According to the Church of England website, the work of the lords spiritual is “informed not only by their role as Christian leaders, but as people with deep roots in the communities that they serve”.[3] Their position is also seen to “reflect the constitution, with the [sovereign] as the supreme governor of the established Church of England”.

The ‘convenor of the lords spiritual’ is a recognised spokesperson for the bishops in the House of Lords.[4] The convenor is responsible for coordinating the work of the bishops in the House. The archbishop of Canterbury appoints the convenor and the position changes when the incumbent convenor retires. The current convenor is the Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith.[5]

3. Participation and voting

As bishops carry out their parliamentary work alongside their existing diocesan responsibilities, they do not attend the House full time.

3.1 Attendance

Figure 1 shows the average attendance of the lords spiritual expressed as a percentage for each parliamentary session. The average attendance of the whole House (including the lords spiritual) is included as a means of comparison.

Figure 1. Average attendance in the House of Lords

 1. Average attendance in the House of Lords
Source: House of Lords Library analysis. *Data for the 2022–23 session is finalised up to the end of April 2023. Attendance data from May 2023 to date has not been included in the chart because it is provisional only. This is because members can request amendments to their attendance data for up to six months.

3.2 Parliamentary questions

Figure 2 shows the activity of the lords spiritual in asking oral and written questions.

Figure 2. Parliamentary questions asked by the lords spiritual

Figure 2. Parliamentary questions asked by the lords spiritual
Source: House of Lords Library analysis.

In the last session (2022–23), the lords spiritual asked 782 written questions and 204 oral questions. This compared to a total of 10,809 written questions and 7,641 oral questions asked in the Lords during the same period. The topics of questions asked by the lords spiritual during the 2022–23 session included asylum, immigration, healthcare and housing.

3.3 Debates led by lords spiritual

Figure 3 shows the number of debates initiated by lords spiritual during the last five parliamentary sessions.

Figure 3. Debates led by lords spiritual

Figure 3. Debates led by lords spiritual
Source: House of Lords Library analysis.

Debates initiated by the lords spiritual during the last five sessions were on topics including net zero, famine in the Horn of Africa and the housing crisis in rural and coastal communities. The lords spiritual have also introduced private members’ bills including, for example, the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill [HL].

Additionally, the lords spiritual have introduced Church of England measures. Measures are a form of primary legislation that relate to the administration and organisation of the Church of England. Passed by the General Synod, measures must be approved by both Houses and receive royal assent. The Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 gives measures the same status as acts of parliament.

3.4 Voting activity

Table 1 sets out the voting averages of the lords spiritual collectively.

Table 1. Lords spiritual participation in divisions

Session Lords spiritual participation (% divisions) Total participation by all House members (% divisions) Lords spiritual votes against the government* Lords spiritual votes with the government* % Lords spiritual votes with the government*
1999–00 3% 30% 30 81 73%
2000–01 3% 32% 3 16 84%
2001–02 3% 33% 77 34 31%
2002–03 4% 31% 96 57 37%
2003–04 3% 33% 56 42 43%
2004–05 4% 39% 45 18 29%
2005–06 2% 34% 53 40 43%
2006–07 3% 35% 51 6 11%
2007–08 4% 32% 82 48 37%
2008–09 2% 27% 27 18 40%
2009–10 5% 29% 33 18 35%
2010–12 6% 48% 252 86 25%
2012–13 6% 48% 99 22 18%
2013–14 6% 51% 91 18 17%
2014–15 5% 44% 55 15 21%
2015–16 4% 45% 65 39 38%
2016–17 5% 45% 53 53 50%
2017–19 5% 46% 98 22 18%
2019–19 8% 43% 2 0 0%
2019–21 9% 62% 342 19 5%
2021–22 6% 41% 272 12 4%
2022–23 6% 45% 276 5 2%
Grand total 4% 40% 2124 668 24%

(Source: House of Lords Library analysis. *Whipped votes only.)

Participation is calculated by adding up the number of votes made by each member of the lords spiritual and dividing it by the number of divisions they were eligible to vote in. Further information on voting in the House of Lords can be accessed via the UK Parliament House of Lords votes website.

4. Recent calls for change

The role of lords spiritual in Parliament has been questioned, both narrowly and as part of the wider debate on House of Lords reform. Whilst some support faith representation in the legislature, criticism has surrounded the Church of England’s automatic representation in the House of Lords, and the role of bishops in politics. This has led to calls for the lords spiritual to be removed.

For many years, Humanists UK has campaigned for the removal of the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords.[6] Referring to 2021 England and Wales census data, the association said “more people aged 66 and under had selected ‘no religion’ than ‘Christian’.[7] It said these results contrasted with the previous census where more people had selected ‘Christian’ than ‘no religion’. The association argued the results signalled that the UK faced a non-religious future. It argued that public bodies were “already out of step” with the latest demographics.

Some Church of England priests have agreed that religious representation in the House of Lords should be reformed. The Times recently conducted a survey of Church of England priests to gain their views on a range of topics, including the lords spiritual’s automatic seats in the House of Lords.[8] The survey results found that:

  • 44.8% of respondents (522 priests) said the lords spiritual seats should be retained but be opened to other denominations and faiths
  • 36.5% of respondents (425 priests) said the lords spiritual seats should remain unchanged
  • 8.6% of respondents (100 priests) said the lords spiritual seats should be reduced in number, but remain reserved for Church of England bishops
  • 6.7% of respondents (78 priests) said the lords spiritual seats should be abolished

The remaining 3.4% of respondents stated ‘don’t know’ when asked which one of the above statements came closest to their own.

The lords spiritual’s role in politics has also been a polarising issue. Most recently, some parliamentarians and organisations criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for describing the government’s Illegal Migration Bill as “morally unacceptable”.[9] Several MPs were critical of the archbishop’s intervention, including James Daly (Conservative MP for Bury North) who argued “the unelected archbishop should stick to religion and keep out of politics.”[10]

In light of such concerns, members of the lords spiritual have publicly defended their parliamentary role. The Bishop of Durham has argued that the work of lords spiritual was an extension of their service to the nation in parishes, schools, chaplaincy and charitable work.[11] The bishop said they are spiritual leaders first and foremost, but also independent members who are not required to follow a whip. He said bishops were “at the forefront of recent campaigns in Parliament on justice for leaseholders facing fire safety costs, on prison reform, welfare of migrants and refugees, and on harms caused by gambling”. He argued that a Parliament without lords spiritual would be a “diminished one, in which full-time appointed professional politicians would dominate”.

Senior lords spiritual have stated that reforms were likely. A briefing paper written by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London said there was widespread consensus across the current lords spiritual that reform of the House of Lords was “inevitable”.[12] It said the Church of England should “seek to shape at least the elements of reform that will impinge on the lords spiritual from within, before they are imposed”. In practice, they said this implied a reduction in the number of lords spiritual and the attachment of those roles to specific seats, rather than by rotational allocation. Additionally, they acknowledged the tension experienced by lords spiritual when managing their parliamentary role and leading a diocese. They did not advocate for removing the lords spiritual completely. Referring to the “high value” work of the lords spiritual in the public domain, they argued there was a “strong case” for further resource to be put into the Church of England’s parliamentary unit to provide adequate support for the bishops.

In March 2023, the Commission on Political Power said whilst it was generally recognised that the lords spiritual played a “constructive and valued part” in the House of Lords, “their presence is anomalous as representatives of the established religion”.[13] The commission called for the House of Lords to be replaced with a senate and an enhanced appointments commission that could consider the balance of faith representation. The Commission on Political Power is an independent group co-convened by Baroness D’Souza and a former chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook. The commission states its purpose is to “generate national debate on potential legislative and structural reform of the UK’s political system”.

Information on previous calls for change to the lords spiritual can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘House of Lords: Lords spiritual’ (4 September 2017). Additionally, detailed information about religious representation in the House can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘House of Lords: Religious representation’ (25 November 2011).

5. House of Commons debate (July 2023)

The role of the lords spiritual has been the subject of a recent parliamentary debate. On 6 July 2023, Tommy Sheppard (SNP MP for Edinburgh East) and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, raised concerns about the automatic representation of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords. He argued it was “clearly wrong” that one church had guaranteed representation when the same rule did not apply to other sections of society. Mr Sheppard also raised the issue of Lords reform, arguing that the presence of bishops in the House of Lords would be a good basis for starting the discussion on the balance between elected and appointed representatives and the role of scrutiny and transparency.[14]

Not all MPs taking part in the debate agreed with Mr Sheppard. Andrew Selous (Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire) and second church estates commissioner for the Church of England, said that removing bishops from the House of Lords was not a priority for constituents. Mr Selous argued that bishops did not have a disproportionate impact on the legislature, given that they make up only a small proportion of the total House membership and voted infrequently. He noted the pastoral and spiritual role that bishops play.[15]

Neil Coyle (Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark) spoke in support of the lords spiritual’s intervention in politics, stating how he would be “disappointed if the church were not standing up on these issues”.[16] In contrast, Chris Loder (Conservative MP for West Dorset) argued that “we are increasingly seeing [lords spiritual] becoming politicians who wear mitres” and argued this was a “damaging thing for the Church of England to do”.[17]

Contributing on behalf of the Labour Party, Alex Norris (Labour MP for Nottingham North) focused on the wider discussion of Lords reform, noting that “the role of the second chamber is much more important than the constitution of its membership”.[18] Mr Norris did not specify the Labour Party’s position on bishops in the House of Lords when pushed by the government minister; however, he said the party continued to argue for a small second chamber that could “better recognise and involve all our nations and regions in our democracy”.[19]

Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office Alex Burghart spoke on behalf of the government. He said he had been drawn to comments made by Mr Selous about constituents’ priorities. The minister stated the number of bishops in the House was small, the challenges faced by the country were “very great” and the time before the next general election “increasingly short”. On this basis, the minister said the issue was not something the government would be engaging with during the 2022–23 parliamentary session.[20]

6. Read more

Cover image: House of Lords 2023/photography by Roger Harris.


  1. UK Parliament, ‘Find members of the House of Lords’, accessed 20 December 2023. Return to text
  2. Church of England in Parliament, ‘Lords spiritual’, 14 March 2023. Return to text
  3. Church of England, ‘The Church in Parliament’, accessed 4 January 2024. Return to text
  4. Donald Shell, ‘House of Lords’, 2007, p 55. Return to text
  5. Church of England, ‘Bishop of St Albans to be convenor of the lords spiritual’, 23 September 2022. Return to text
  6. Humanists UK, ‘Bishops in the House of Lords’, accessed 20 December 2023. Return to text
  7. Humanists UK, ‘2021 census: More non-religious than Christians among those under 67’, 30 January 2023. Return to text
  8. Kaya Burgess, ‘How the Times surveyed Church of England priests’, Times (£), 8 September 2023. Return to text
  9. HL Hansard, 10 May 2023, cols 1793–4. Return to text
  10. LBC, ‘Tory backlash against archbishop after Justin Welby uses House of Lords speech to slam government’s migration bill’, 11 May 2023. Return to text
  11. The House, ‘Bishops in the Lords: An unholy row’, 24 June 2021. Return to text
  12. Church Times, ‘Confidential briefing prepared for The College of Bishops: Bishops and their ministry’, 12 February 2022. Return to text
  13. Commission on Political Power, ‘Options paper: The creation of a senate’, 27 March 2023. Return to text
  14. HC Hansard, 6 July 2023, cols 384–5WH. Return to text
  15. HC Hansard, 6 July 2023, cols 386–7WH. Return to text
  16. HC Hansard, 6 July 2023, cols 389–91WH. Return to text
  17. HC Hansard, 6 July 2023, col 392WH. Return to text
  18. HC Hansard, 6 July 2023, col 397WH. Return to text
  19. HC Hansard, 6 July 2023, col 398WH. Return to text
  20. HC Hansard, 6 July 2023, col 400WH. Return to text