Church's credibility on gay marriage now 'weakened'

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The Independent Online

Parliament is now less likely to listen to the Church of England on same-sex marriage after its failure to pass legislation approving women bishops, church insiders and MPs have warned.

No 10 had been bracing itself for a showdown with the religious right and Tory backbenchers over its commitment to grant equal marriage rights to gay men and women. But some have warned that the church's credibility to speak about equality issues has now been fatally undermined by its failure earlier this week to embrace female headship.

The warnings came amid growing signs that David Cameron wants to fast-track gay-marriage legislation and put it before Parliament as early as the new year. Previously the Government had only committed itself to introducing legislation before the next General Election in 2015.

Speeding up the process is seen as an attempt to cap the head of steam the religious right has built up challenging the plans. Officially the Church of England opposes plans for gay marriage although there is nonetheless support for it among some lay members and clergy.

Many on the liberal wing of the Church of England say their more socially reactionary colleagues have temporarily won the battle against women bishops but could lose the wider war on human sexuality.

"The Church's position has been fatally undermined by our incompetence in broaching what should have been a no-brainer in terms of equality," George Pitcher, a clergyman and the Archbishop of Canterbury's former spin doctor, told i.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats support the Government plans to bring in gay marriage, meaning any Bill in Parliament would receive little opposition in the Commons if it was tabled in the new year.

But Alex Thompson, from the non-denominational Coalition for Marriage, a group which opposes gay marriage, said it was not concerned by plans to fast-track legislation.

"It shows the Government is increasingly admitting it is losing the argument and is planning to introduce legislation in a rushed way," he said. "Rushed legislation is easier to defeat."

The pro-gay marriage Coalition For Equal Marriage said: "Churches will remain unaffected by the proposals for civil ceremonies, therefore we see no reason to delay their introduction."