Archbishops And Politics

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, caused a kerfuffle recently when he criticized the Government’s flagship welfare reform and described zero-hours contracts ‘a reincarnation of an ancient evil.’ This has not gone down well with certain segments of the Conservative Party: Charles Walker, Tory MP for Broxbourne, told The Sun that Welby’s comments were “classic examples of why the Church should not get involved in politics,” while The Telegraph ran an editorial proclaiming that “The Archbishop of Canterbury should stick to religion and stay out of politics.”

However, the notion that Welby overstepped the mark is constitutionally problematic. The Archbishop of Canterbury is one of the twenty-six Church of England bishops who sit ex officio in the House of Lords.[1] Their presence is not simply ceremonial, either. The ‘Lords Spiritual’ are active members of the House—they question the Government, speak in debates, serve on committees, and vote on legislation (the C of E even has a dedicated website to highlight their parliamentary contributions).[2] Now one could argue that Anglican bishops shouldn’t be in the House of Lords in the first place, but until that changes, there is little point in admonishing them to stay out of politics.


[1] The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester automatically receive seats in the Lords. The other twenty-one bishops receive seats based on seniority, though under the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015 women bishops take precedence over their male colleagues until 2025. There are some technical differences between the bishops and other members of the House, as a Standing Order from 1621 declared that bishops weren’t peers, but ‘Lords of Parliament.’ Consequently, they are not entitled to the privilege of peerage, though this means little nowadays. And unlike peers, bishops do not hold their seats for life–they leave the House upon retiring from their sees.

[2] The few restrictions on their parliamentary role were connected with the House’s judicial work. By longstanding custom, the Lords Spiritual would withdraw before the House gave its verdict in the trial of a peer or an impeachment. However, a peer’s right to be tried by the House was abolished in 1948, and impeachment has fallen into desuetude.

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