The Church of England says it could be forced to stop conducting weddings on behalf of the state if same-sex marriage is legalised.
The church said introducing same-sex marriage would lead to an unprecedented clash between its own canon law – that marriage is between a man and a woman – and that of parliament.
Under the proposals, same-sex couples could marry in a register office or other civil ceremony.
already in a civil partnership could convert it into a marriage but a ban remains on same-sex couples marrying in a religious service
Despite the church being exempt from performing gay marriage – it fears it could be challenged in both the domestic and European courts.
its response – the Church says the move would change marriage as the union of a man and a woman.’
By allowing civil ceremonies marriage status – it would remove the Church’s role of marrying people on behalf of the state.
It also warned that in spite of ministerial assurances that churches would not have to conduct gay marriages, it was “very doubtful” whether limiting same-sex couples to non-religious ceremonies would withstand a challenge at the European court of human rights.
This could make it impossible for the Church of England to continue its role conducting marriages on behalf of the state, it warned.
The Church of England added that introducing gay marriage could also lead to challenges to civil partnership law, as removing the concept of gender from marriage while leaving it in place for civil partnerships would be unlikely to be “legally sustainable”.
In a highly critical response to the government’s consultation on gay marriage which closes on Thursday, the Church of England said several “major elements” of the proposals had not been thought through properly and were not legally “sound”.
The Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said the Church of England had been supportive of civil partnerships when the legislation was introduced eight years ago.
“We continue to be supportive of the gay community and want to see that inclusion in our society increased and developed,” he said.
“I think the difficulty we have here is the substitution of equality for uniformity, that is to say that there can be no distinction at all between men and women.”
He added: “The government is seeking to meet what it perceives to be the needs of the gay community.
“I would say that the Church of England is sympathetic to those needs, we want to see a society in which gay people are fully included and their needs are fully provided for.
“But this does not amount to a basis for introducing a complete redefinition of the concept of marriage based on a consultation process which is at the very least rapid.”
Under the current law, anyone who is resident in England has a legal right to marry in his or her Church of England parish church irrespective of religious affiliation, and the minister of the parish is under a legal duty to conduct the marriage.
Around a quarter of weddings in England take place in Church of England churches with the number rising in 2010 by 4 per cent to 54,700, compared to 52,730 in 2009.
The submission from the Church of England will add to pressure on David Cameron, who has spoken out in support of gay marriage.
Mr Cameron has come under fire from supporters of the proposals for allowing a free vote amongst Tory MPs to avoid a rebellion over the issue.
But other Tory critics have said they view the proposal as a Liberal Democrat policy distracting the Government from bigger challenges.
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell accused the Church of England of “scaremongering, exaggerating the effects of same-sex marriage and advocating legal discrimination”, saying public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage.
Mr Tatchell, co-ordinator of the Equal Love campaign to legalise same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships, said: “The government’s proposals concern only civil marriages in register offices.
“They will have no impact on faith organisations or places of worship. Senior churchmen are protesting against a law change that will not affect them.
“They have no right to demand that gay couples should be banned from civil marriage ceremonies.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The purpose of the equal civil marriage consultation is to enable us to listen to all views, including those of all religions.”