The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has abandoned his support for allowing heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships under pressure from the church hierarchy.
His climbdown will be welcomed by the Government as it looks to finally ensure the smooth passage of the equal marriage bill through the House of Commons this week, against Conservative backbench and Labour Catholic opposition.
But the Archbishop’s U-turn will anger both Tory backbenchers and campaigners who argue that in the name of equality, heterosexual couples should be able to enter civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage.
The Archbishop had assured campaigner Peter Tatchell four weeks ago during a private meeting in Lambeth House that when the Bill goes before the House of Lords, he would personally vote for an amendment legalising civil partnerships for heterosexuals.
But a statement, endorsed by Welby, has been put out by the Church of England contradicting his privately expressed opinion. It said: “We agree with the Government’s view that the Bill should not be amended to introduce an option of civil partnerships for couples of the opposite sex” and that it “would introduce further confusion about the place of marriage in society.”
It added that the Church was “unconvinced” there was a “genuine and widespread public need” for the change.
Peter Tatchell said yesterday that he would “be very upset” to think that Welby “had been lent on by the church hierarchy.” He added: “The Archbishop told me very clearly that he supported the right of heterosexual couples to have civil partnerships. I am very surprised that he is now saying that he endorses the church’s opposition. It seems to be a reversal of what he told me only four weeks ago.”
A spokesman for Archbishop Welby said he “supports” what is said in the submission. He would not comment on the private meeting with Mr Tatchell.
The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond broke ranks last week to suggest there was a “real sense of anger” among voters over changing legislation to grant marriage to same-sex couples.
The Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper writes in tomorrow’s Independent on Sunday that “It’s about time [the Bill] got the celebratory fanfare it deserves.” She said: “So far we’ve heard the shouting from the Tory right. Ministers are gritting their teeth and wishing it was over. The Prime Minister has gone to ground. Yet this Bill is no embarrassment to be rushed through without comment, it is a cause for celebration.
“I hope David Cameron will show confidence and not allow the Equal Marriage Bill to get sucked into another vortex of bitter Tory wrangling. I hope we hear as many people as possible supporting the chance for couples who want to get married whatever their gender or sexuality and championing equality.”
France became the ninth country in Europe, and 14th worldwide, to legalise gay marriage after the Constitutional Council rejected a challenge by the right wing opposition on Friday.