The Church of England would be allowed a fast-track opt-in to the law allowing gay marriage if it decides to drop its opposition to the idea, it emerged yesterday.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill will make it illegal for the Church to conduct gay marriages because its canon law prohibits them. That means that an individual Church of England vicar would not be able to hold gay weddings – even though the Bill will allow other churches to do so if they wish. The Government has been criticised by equality campaigners for specifically outlawing same-sex marriage in the Church in its legislation. But in a response to critics, the Bill, published yesterday, would allow the Church to opt in to the law without fresh legislation being pushed through Parliament, a process that could take many months. Once canon law was changed, all that would be required would be a vote in the Commons and Lords.
Maria Miller, the Equalities Minister, said clergy in the Churches of England and Wales were subject to a legal duty to marry parishioners. To protect them from legal challenge, the Bill made clear this would not extend to same-sex couples. “I think it’s important to recognise that churches may decide not to opt in and some will decide to opt in,” Ms Miller said. “If you look at the way that issues such as divorce have been dealt with in the Church of England, and the way the state deals with them, over time the Church of England has looked at these matters and decided to deal with them differently and now, for instance, with divorce, vicars are able to have some discretion on these matters.”
Some Churches, such as the Quakers and Unitarians, have already decided to opt in to allowing gay marriages and others, including the Church of England, might do so in the future. Officials said Ms Miller was not encouraging the Church to opt in, which was solely a matter for it to decide. Ms Miller insisted that teachers would be able to express disapproval about gay marriage, as long as they do not so in an “offensive” way or “discriminate” against people.
Some Conservative MPs have warned that teachers could be sacked for failing to promote same-sex marriage and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is believed to share their concern. About 60 per cent of Tory MPs may vote against the Bill when it has its second reading on 5 February, party managers believe, with some others abstaining. David Cameron has conceded a free vote but the measure is likely to pass with the support of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs.
The Church of England welcomed the Government’s constructive approach in talks on the Bill but said it was wrong to press ahead so quickly.The Right Rev Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester, said: “The lack of a clear mandate and the absence of an overwhelming public consensus for change ought at least to give pause for thought.”
Peter Bone, a Tory MP and prominent opponent of the Bill, said: “It is just a view that I have, and Christians and other people across the country, that a man and a woman equals marriage. Two people of the same sex do not.”