Parliament is now less likely to listen to the Church of England on same sex marriage following its failure to pass legislation approving women bishops, church insiders and MPs have warned.
Number 10 had been bracing itself for a showdown with the religious right and Tory back benchers 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 decision making process is seen as an attempt to cap the head of steam that the religious right has built up in 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 The Independent. “We have allowed ourselves to be pushed into a corner of irrelevance where it will be hard for the Church to have any sort of voice on the gay marriage debate because it will be coming from an organisation that couldn’t even deal with the issue of women bishops.”
Savi Hensman, from the liberal Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which supports gay marriage, added: “The women bishops vote has undermined the credibility of the leadership of the Church of England because it doesn’t appear to speak for large numbers of people in the pews. That applies not just to women bishops but also the issue of same sex partnerships.”
In Parliament yesterday MPs rounded on the Church for failing to counter institutional and theological sexism.
In a particularly stinging rebuke, Tony Baldry, a Conservative MP and a parliamentary representative in synod, said MPs will simply ignore the Church’s concerns about gay marriage following the women bishops vote. "If the Church of England thinks that Parliament is going to listen to them on issues such as same-sex marriage and so forth with considerable attention, when the Church of England seems to be so out of step on other issues of concern to Parliament, then they are simply deluding themselves," he said.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they support the Government plans to bring in gay marriage meaning any bill in Parliament would likely 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 pressure group which opposes gay marriage, said they were not concerned by plans to fast track legislation.
“It shows that the government is increasingly admitting that it is losing the argument and is planning to introduce legislation in a rushed way,” he said. “Rushed legislation is easier to defeat.”
The Coalition 4 Equal Marriage, which supports the government, welcomed plans to fast track a gay marriage bill.
“Churches, whether they agree or not, will remain unaffected by the current proposals for civil ceremonies, therefore we see no reason at all to delay their introduction,” a spokesperson said. “Those opposed have had their say, and their concerns have been well noted. They are free to arrange their own organisations as they see fit, as we have seen with women bishops, but they must not be allowed to dictate the rules for the whole of our tolerant society.”