Archbishop of Canterbury says Church will fight moves to introduce gay marriage

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The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has told a private meeting of influential MPs that he is not prepared to allow Church of England buildings to host religious civil partnerships.

The government intends to implement a House of Lords amendment to the Equality Act that would allow churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious buildings to host civil partnership ceremonies should the faith group wish to.

The amendment is entirely permissive and no organisation will be forced to allow gay couples to hold ceremonies there.

The equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has said that no church will be successfully sued by a gay couple it refuses to cater to.

However, many consider the introduction of religious civil partnerships to be the first step towards full gay marriage equality. A government consultation on the issue is to begin shortly. understands that the preferred option of both the prime minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg is to eventually open civil marriage and civil partnerships to all couples, whether straight or gay.

The government also privately hopes that religious ministers will be allowed to conduct gay marriages in the same way that they officiate at straight marriages.

Dr Williams told a meeting of MPs that while the church welcomes gay clergy and allows them to be in civil partnerships, it would not support moves to equalise gay relationships with marriage or for the couples to hold ceremonies within the Church of England. When challenged by Simon Kirby, the conservative MP for Brighton Kempton, Dr Williams said he would not countenance weakening the church’s teaching on marriage or for its stance to be dictated by ministers.

“I hoped he might be more measured in his response and reflect on the cases for both sides of the argument more evenly, but he was very one sided,” Mr Kirby told the Sunday Telegraph.

“Public opinion is moving faster than the church on this issue and it is increasingly in danger of getting left behind.

“Obviously it is a difficult issue for the church, but it has many gay men and women who want to be treated the same way as everyone else,” he added.

Giles Fraser, canon chancellor at St Paul’s cathedral, last week criticised the Church of England saying: “Gay relationships are perfectly capable of reflecting the love of God. Which is why the church should respond more imaginatively to the idea of same-sex blessings being celebrated in church.”

A spokesman for Dr Williams said: “The Church still believes on the basis of Bible and tradition that marriage is between a man and a woman and does not accept that this needs to change.

“Civil partnerships now provide legal securities for same-sex couples, but this does not, in itself, alter what we believe to be unique about marriage.

“The Church of England is opposed to all forms of homophobia and would want to defend the civil liberties of homosexual people, and to welcome them into our churches.”