Our desire to see the UK become a secular state, guaranteeing equal treatment for all, means that we wish to see the Church of England and Church of Scotland disestablished, and the inequalities associated with establishment also removed. This includes removing from the House of Lords of the 26 bishops who sit as of right, with appointments or elections to the chamber instead being done for secular reasons.
Although it has been disestablished in Wales and Northern Ireland, the Anglican Church is still the state church of England. Similarly the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland is recognised as the national church of Scotland and, like the Church of England, has the monarch at its head. We wish to see both churches disestablished. Continuing establishment gives rise to and allows many of the inequalities and instances of discrimination we detail across our website, including in education, in matters of equality and human rights, in public service provision and in the fact that bishops sit as of right in the House of Lords.
Disestablishment would include a separation of church and state so that the Head of State is not also Head of the Church of England or Church of Scotland, and an end to other constitutional entanglements between the state and the Church.
Establishment becomes less and less justifiable as the proportion of the population who are Christian continues to fall. Most surveys and statistics suggest that a majority of the population is nowadays non-religious, with the established churches facing a particular decline in affiliation and attendance. For example, the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey recorded 51% of the population as non-religious and 42% as Christian. But of that, only 16% was Anglican – dropping to just 3% of those aged 18-24, 4% of those aged 25-34, and 7% of those living in London. Only 18% of people in Scotland were recorded as Presbyterian. On top of that, the Church of England’s own attendance figures recorded 2014 average Sunday attendance figures at just 827,000, half the number that attended in 1968 and significantly lower than the 2002 figure of 1,005,000. This represents just 1% of the English population. Fewer people now attend Church of England churches each week than children take part in Anglican collective worship every day in state-funded Church of England schools.
According to a 2013 YouGov survey, just 27% of British adults think that ‘the connection between the Church of England and the State should continue’, while 51% think ‘the Church should be separated from the State’.
Secularism would also require an end to Bishops sitting as of right in the House of Lords and a substantial reduction in permissible discrimination based on religion or belief. No other democratic sovereign state gives seats in its legislature to religious representatives as of right. The only other democracy that does so is the Isle of Man, which reserves one seat for the Bishop of Sodor and Man.
The fact that bishops continue to vote on our laws, sometimes making the difference between whether or not certain votes are passed, is an anachronism that has long been in need for reform. We set out more details about why this is an issue and our thoughts on the problem on our separate page on bishops in the House of Lords.
Other constitutional issues
There are a number of other areas where the constitution needs reforming to remove religious discrimination. In the Houses of Parliament, business starts each day with prayers. After the prayers members are not required to leave the chamber before following business. This means that if the first debate of the day is very popular, then those MPs and peers who do not wish to take part in prayers often struggle to get a seat and therefore are less likely to be chosen to speak in the debate. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group complain to us about this issue more than any other. This fundamentally affects the ability of all views to have equal opportunity to be heard. Prayers should be scrapped or at least replaced by ‘time for reflection’ that rotates amongst different religious and non-religious worldviews, as is the case in the Scottish Parliament.
Equally egregious is that if in a debate in the House of Lords a bishop stands up to speak, then they always get precedence over any other individual, who must give way.
Prayers are also a problem in local council sessions, where in 2012 the High Court ruled that such prayers could not legally occur as part of formal business, but in 2015 a new law was passed making them legal again. An ongoing debate has been occurring within many councils about this in recent years, and we have supported many councillors who have pushed for prayers to be scrapped or at least removed from formal business, or replaced by more inclusive ‘time for reflection’.
Further issues include the fact that the monarch cannot be a Catholic, and the fact that the opening ceremony of the judicial year, attended by judges, is Anglican in nature.
What we’re doing
We continue to speak out on the need to disestablish the Church of England and Church of Scotland, particularly when new evidence comes to light around the growing extent to which the churches fail to represent their respective nations.
We also campaign hard for reform of the House of Lords to remove the automatic right of bishops to seats. For example in 2011 our ‘Holy Redundant’ campaign sought to challenge the decision, in the last major proposals to reform the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber, to nonetheless keep 12 seats for bishops. However, these proposals were ultimately scrapped and so the 26 seats the bishops automatically have at the moment remained in place.
More recently, ongoing discussion about review of the UK’s constitutional status has seen renewed calls for bishops to be removed from the Lords. If these discussions advance then we will again be pressing hard for reform. You can find out more about our campaigns around bishops in the Lords on the separate page on our website for this campaign.
You can also research and take up disestablishment more generally with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.
If there is anything in these pages that you need more information or advice on, please contact our Campaigns Team.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.