Top Church of England officials have warned that efforts of the government to allow same-sex marriage by 2015 could cause the greatest rift between the church and the state for almost 500 years.
Anglican officials have claimed that the government’s proposals threaten the institution of marriage as they would “alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” They have described the proposals as “divisive,” “legally flawed” and “essentially ideological”. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, caused controversy earlier this year by saying that centuries of tradition would be overturned if gay marriage was legalised.
According to the Home Office, religious organisations would not be coerced into conducting gay marriage. However the Church of England fears that this exemption would eventually be overturned by domestic and European courts, meaning that it will be forced to treat gay couples who wish to marry in the same way it treats heterosexual couples. This redefinition of marriage, Church figures argue, would pit canon law against state law, and lead to the greatest rift between the Church of England and the state in almost 500 years.
As part of the ties between the Church of England and the state, the Church can act on behalf of the state by conducting marriages for parish residents. Currently around a quarter of marriages take place in a Church of England service. However this unique position that the church holds would be threatened if two competing definitions of marriage, a civil definition and a religious definition, were to emerge.
The Church of England’s attitude towards gay marriage has been attacked by gay rights campaigners like Peter Tatchell, who has accused the Church of “scaremongering” and advocating “legal discrimination”. Ben Summerskill of the gay rights pressure group Stonewall has argued, “There is manifestly no evidence that the recognition of long-term same-sex relationships has any impact of the institution of marriage for heterosexuals”.
Meanwhile a petition opposing the government’s plans, organised by the campaign group Coalition for Marriage, has collected over 550,000 signatures. It is estimated that up to 100 Conservative backbenchers might vote against the government over the issue, whilst other Church leaders, including the head of the Roman Catholic Church, have also attacked the government’s plans. However, according to a recent YouGov poll, 71 per cent of the British public support the idea.