In its official response to the Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, the Church of England upholds the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Liberal Anglicans challenged the response during a Q&A at the General Synod meeting in York, suggesting that it discriminated against gay Anglicans, particularly those in same-sex relationships.
Dr Rowan Williams said the response had taken into consideration the Church’s need to be “affirmative of civil partnerships within the guidelines of the House” and a “recognition that we have not always got it right”.
Asked whether the response was “out of step” with the rest of the Church, Dr Williams replied: “It remains the case that we are as the Church of England bound by the law which governs us” – a reference to the traditional definition of marriage set out in Canon B30.
The Archbishop went on to say that the Government’s consultation document was “deeply flawed” in its suggestion that civil marriage was different from religious marriage.
He clarified that the House of Bishops had “no plans” to invite the Synod to debate the question of same-sex marriage.
“It is important to note that [such a] debate would involve changing Canon B30,” he said.
Dr Williams said there had been several formal and informal discussions with Government ministers, including the Home Secretary.
“The basis of the mandate for changing the state’s understanding of marriage, given the lack of any commitment in the election manifestos of the main parties is at the very least a question that requires a more lucid answer than has yet been received,” he said.
“It is only right to note, however, that same sex marriage now has the official support of all three main parties.”
If same-sex weddings become possible in places of worship where religious authorities have given their consent, the Archbishop said there would be “important questions to resolve” about how religious freedom could be safeguarded in light of such consent.
“While it is doubtful whether the European Court of Human Rights would ever compel a church or faith group to conduct services contrary to its religious convictions, what is less clear is whether it would be content for Church of England clergy to continue to exercise the powers of the State in relation to marriage if the Church were only prepared to do so on what might be held to be a discriminatory basis,” he explained.
The Archbishop received a round of applause from Synod when Gerald O’Brien, of Rochester Diocese, expressed his thanks “on behalf of many members of the Church of England for a robust defence of marriage”.