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MPs, peers call for overhaul of place of religion in Parliament

Humanist MPs and peers have today called for a major rebalancing of the relationship between religion and state in the Westminster Parliament. Their new report calls for parliamentary prayers to be replaced with a ‘time for reflection’ inclusive of all, for the Commons speaker to consider introducing additional forms of religious and pastoral support alongside that provided by the Anglican chaplain, and for an end to automatic seats in Parliament for Anglican bishops.

Time for Reflection: A report of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group on religion or belief in the UK Parliament examines these matters in more detail than ever before, uncovering issues which have restricted non-Anglican parliamentarians from fully participating in the life of Parliament as equally as their Anglican colleagues.

Prayers: The report highlights the exclusive nature of prayers, and how parliamentarians can miss out on seats in Prime Minister’s Questions and other key debates. If MPs don’t attend prayers they can fail to secure a seat in the chamber for the rest of the day, which hampers their ability to represent their constituents. One MP said, ‘I stand outside the House of Commons chamber at the start of the session, peering through the window as colleagues take part in prayers. Whilst I appreciate it means a lot to them, the rituals make me feel excluded. I’m unable to take part in the start of the parliamentary day unless I lie and profess to believe in something I do not.’ The report recommends replacing prayers with a daily ‘time for reflection’ similar to that held in the Scottish Parliament, which would be inclusive of the broad range of religious and non-religious worldviews in today’s UK.

Pastoral care: The report examines the role of the Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, who is there to meet the pastoral needs of all MPs, but who MPs in the report do not feel can do so for them, given the Anglican nature of the provision. In hospitals and prisons, what has in the past been exclusively Anglican provision has in recent years moved towards having different religious chaplains as well as humanist pastoral carers. The report recommends a review to ensure that the pastoral needs of all parliamentarians and staff are met.

Bishops: The report reveals nine cases where bishops in the House of Lords changed the outcomes of votes (or twelve including the votes of ex-bishops), including two that directly benefited the Church of England. In the first, bishops removed a clause in the Equality Act 2010 which enabled the Church of England – their employer – to have wider religious exemptions in its employment practices. The other vote, on the Education and Adoption Act 2016, ensured that maintained schools that are failing can be forcibly converted to academies, which gave the Church more control over its schools.

In the UK Parliament, 26 bishops of the Church of England receive automatic places in the House of Lords; the only other sovereign state which allows religious leaders to sit as of right is in Iran. One MP commented, ‘It is difficult to criticise theocratic Iran from a position where the UK has the only other Parliament with clerics embedded in its constitution.’ The report highlights how these bishops receive further privileges, including privileged access to meetings with officials in charge of writing new laws, as well as unique speaking rights, such as when other Lords are forced to sit if a bishop wishes to speak. It recommends repealing automatic rights for bishops to sit in the Lords and only appointing peers on their personal merit, in the same way as other appointed peers.

Finally, the report makes recommendations around parliamentary oversight of the Church of England, suggesting the two be separated in ways that would free the Church to take control of its own affairs, with its internal laws (known as Measures) ceasing to also be laws of the land.

The report has been launched at an All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) meeting in Parliament today.

Launching the report, Crispin Blunt MP Chair of the APPHG said: ‘The UK is more diverse than ever before and yet our Parliament remains an institution that marginalises those who are not Anglican. This report highlights the dated nature of our system where non-Anglican MPs and peers like me can be put at a disadvantage because they don’t wish to attend prayers. It is now time for us to consider how prayers as part of our procedures could be replaced, perhaps with an inclusive time for reflection, ensuring all parliamentarians get the same rights so that everyone can take part in the day’s business without having to compromise values important to them.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘When you have been privileged for so long, equality can seem like a step down, but I hope that Anglicans in particular will be able to see that the authors of this report are aiming for a broad and inclusive approach. This report shows the way forward to a Parliament that treats its members equally, regardless of religion or belief and – just as importantly – is more reflective of the diverse public it serves.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Press Manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078 or 07393 344293.

Read the full report: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/APPG-report_religion-in-parliament_Jan2020_print.pdf

The All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group was founded in the 1960s to bring together members of the House of Commons and House of Lords interested in matters relating to humanism. It has 115 members and the secretariat is provided by Humanists UK.

Read more about Humanists UK’s work on religion in Parliament: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/secularism/constitutional-reform/

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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