Could gay marriage trigger the C of E’s disestablishment?

The Church of England's Establishment position is so broad-reaching it will only ever be dislodged by an 'incidental' controversy. Might gay marriage provide that opportunity?

The storm clouds continue to gather. Opposition to the coalition's plans to legalise marriage between same-sex couples is generating intense opposition from many Conservative backbenchers as well as religious groups. It was always likely that UK Catholics would oppose the move – even if the language used (it's "grotesque", according to Cardinal Keith O'Brien) is somewhat extreme. What was not expected quite so obviously has been the Church of England's opposition. That was unveiled earlier today in its response to the government's consultation on the issue. It has, in short, kicked up a constitutional stink.

The problem, the response explains, is that ministers are being "disingenuous" in confusing marriage with the ceremony that creates it. Only the latter can be civil or religious, the Church argues. The institution itself just is marriage; there shouldn't be a civil-only version of it. Its objection to the distinction is rooted in fundamental attitudes towards homosexuality and, by extension, its appropriateness for the state of matrimony. This is a question of personal belief. The Church of England has a spectrum of views on the issue, some more liberal than others, but as an institution it is ultimately opposed to the government's proposals.

This is where the game-playing comes in. Today's submission contains some very dauntingly complex legal arguments about the implications of the government's proposal. Put simply, they are worried that plans to prohibit same-sex marriages from being solemnized by the Church of England will compromise its ability to be an established church, serving all individuals within a parish.

Not being able to marry two members of a parish might seem petty, but the Church is arguing that the European court of human rights might cause trouble for the government, on the grounds that it is discriminating. Such arguments, regardless of their legal merit, might be judged to be more based in gamesmanship and foot-dragging than a real constructive concern. It's hard to engage with the arguments without getting a sense that much more than just gay marriage is at stake. This is about a problem that has exercised ministers and bishops for centuries: the relationship between the church and the state.

The Church of England has enjoyed a privileged status for centuries. We've seen the ensuing debate from that basic fact play out in arguments over Lords reform, and the place of unelected bishops in the predominantly elected second chamber sought by the coalition government. Both bishops in the Lords and gay marriage are relatively minor issues, but they reflect the much bigger question of the ongoing relevance of the Church in our society. Does it deserve its position of status?

Neither of these two tangential issues are likely to trigger discussions that will properly address that question. But tangential issues have proved critical in the past in changing the relationship between church and state. It was the state of Henry VIII's marriage, after all, which triggered the creation of the Church of England in the first place. Is gay marriage its 21st century equivalent?

The simplest way for this argument to be dodged is for the coalition to change its proposals to avoid the clash. Doing so seems plausible without undermining the basic reform of legalising same-sex marriage. We'll have to wait and see whether ministers decide to do so or not. The consultation closes this Friday, after which the ball will be in the government's court once again.