Church-state confrontation over gay marriage could be solved with disestablishment

A major confrontation between the Church of England and the Government is brewing over gay marriage and civil partnerships.

The government intends to implement a House of Lords amendment to the Equality Act that would allow churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious buildings to host civil partnership ceremonies should the faith group so wish. The amendment is entirely permissive and no organisation will be forced to allow gay couples to hold ceremonies on their premises.

The equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has said that gay couples will not be able to sue churches that refuse to participate.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury has told a group of influential MPs at a private meeting that the Church will strongly resist any attempt to give gay couples the equivalent of marriage. A government consultation on the issue is to begin in April.

Both the prime minister, David Cameron, and his deputy Nick Clegg, favour opening civil marriage and civil partnerships to all couples, whether straight or gay. The government also privately hopes that religious ministers will be allowed to conduct gay marriages in the same way that they officiate at straight marriages.

When challenged by Simon Kirby, the conservative MP for Brighton Kempton, Dr Williams said he would not countenance weakening the church’s teaching on marriage or for its stance to be dictated by Government ministers.

“I hoped he might be more measured in his response and reflect on the cases for both sides of the argument more evenly, but he was very one sided,” Mr Kirby told the Sunday Telegraph. “Public opinion is moving faster than the Church on this issue and it is increasingly in danger of getting left behind. Obviously it is a difficult issue for the church, but it has many gay men and women who want to be treated the same way as everyone else,” he added.

A spokesman for Dr Williams said: “The Church still believes on the basis of Bible and tradition that marriage is between a man and a woman and does not accept that this needs to change. Civil partnerships now provide legal securities for same-sex couples, but this does not, in itself, alter what we believe to be unique about marriage. The Church of England is opposed to all forms of homophobia and would want to defend the civil liberties of homosexual people, and to welcome them into our churches.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “The Church of England fiercely defends its established status, but this seems to be becoming increasingly inconvenient as its doctrines come into conflict with modern thinking and knowledge. If the Church wants to act independently, it should do so from a position of independence – not privilege. It claims that its raison d’etre and the justification of its privileges is that it is the national church, open to all citizens. It can no longer claim this and then refuse to provide services to a section of the community of which it doesn’t approve.

“The time for the Church to be disestablished is long overdue. Such a move would be of great benefit not only to the state, but to the Church itself.”