Same sex marriage legislation proposed by the British government could lead to the Church being forced out of traditional wedding ceremonies.
For hundreds of years the Church has taught that marriage is between a man and a woman, now the coalition is planning to introduce legislation to allow gay couples in England and Wales to marry.
The Church of England (CofE) is opposed to the proposal. It has delivered a 13-page submission to the government warning that it cannot support the plan to allow all couples regardless of gender to have a civil marriage ceremony.
The Church’s position raises the prospect of the biggest rift between the CofE and the state since it was established by Henry VIII 500 years ago.
The Cof E submission will put pressure on the Prime Minister David Cameron who has allowed a free vote of Tory MP’s on the issue. Cameron is an open supporter of gay marriage, while many Conservative MPs are against the proposed law. The Liberal Democrats, who also form part of the coalition, are largely in favor of the draft bill.
Same sex couples already have similar rights to married heterosexual partners through civil partnerships, which were introduced in 2004.
However, according to James Lawrence of Stonewall, which campaigns for gay rights, civil partnerships have not been sufficient to diminish the remaining prejudice against gay people. He told RT that the Church’s submission came as “little surprise.” He added “during the consultation period marriage equality has been compared with slavery, child abuse, polygamy and bestiality.”
Ministers have assured the Church that it would not have to conduct gay marriages. However, it is extremely unlikely that this would withstand a challenge from the European Court of Human Rights.
As the law stands now, anyone resident in England has the right to be married by the church regardless of their religious faith. About a quarter of marriages in England take place in Church of England churches.
The CofE claims that several elements of the government proposal have not been thought through and are not of a sound legal basis. It makes the case that removing the concept of gender from marriage could lead to challenges to the current civil partnerships law.
Malcolm Brown, a spokesman for the CofE, told RT that future legal action against the government was not out of the question.
“We would have to see what it all looked like were it to progress through Parliament and possibly (given that some questions are deliberately left to case law by the consultation) the courts,” said Brown.
The Bishop of Leicester had been supportive of civil partnerships when they were introduced but is against the proposed legislation. He told the UK newspaper The Guardian, “I think the difficulty here is the substitution of equality for uniformity; that is to say that there can be no distinction at all between men and women.”
The government has a spirited opponent in the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu. Dr. Sentamu, a former judge in Uganda, is a leading opponent of gay marriage and is a serious contender to replace Dr. Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the CofE.
The Church is split on the matter. While supported by many Christians, Dr. Sentamu’s views are not shared by the more liberal members of the CofE. The Reverend Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, said on Twitter that a recent statement from the Archbishop of York proclaiming his views on gay marriage was “absolute rubbish.”
However, Malcolm Brown played down these differences. The spokesperson told RT that the issue “does not divide the church on the predictable pro-gay/anti-gay lines.” He added that the submission to the government “had the agreement of the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops.”
A YouGov poll published today by Stonewall found that 3 in 5 people of faith in Britain support the extension of civil marriages to same sex couples. “The church’s leaders don’t represent their followers’ views,” Lawrence told RT.