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Will gay marriage be the death of the Church of England?

Same-sex marriage would be a step to disestablishment, Church figures warn.

A Eucharist service at Westminster Abbey.
The Church of England warned that it would be "very doubtful" whether same-sex couples could be denied religious services. Photograph: Getty Images.

Could the introduction of gay marriage lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England? That's the extraordinary suggestion some clerics have made in response to the coalition's proposals. The government has previously ruled out making it compulsory for religious organisations to host gay marriages (indeed, even those religious groups which wish to conduct gay marriages, such as Quakers, would be absurdly prohibited from doing so) but the Church warns that this position would be open to successful challenge under European human rights law.

In its formal response to the coalition's consultation on same-sex marriage, which closes on Thursday, the Church states:

If the proposal to redefine marriage were to be implemented, it must be very doubtful whether limiting same-sex couples to non-religious forms and ceremonies could withstand a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The distinction would become "politically unsustainable", the legal paper claims, while also allowing heterosexual couples to press for the right to have civil partnerships (to which we might reply: good). It concludes, in the suggestion that has attracted so much attention this morning, that the Church could be forced to end its role as religious registrar for the state.

The Telegraph quotes a senior figure as saying:

The canons of the Church of England are part of the law of England and have been continuously since the reformation of Henry VIII. Is it possible to have the law of the Church of England saying something different to the law of England? The question is how long we can sustain that. It raises the sort of problems that no one has had to address before.

I do believe that the European Court could make it impossible for Church of England to go on having the role that it has got at the moment in relation to conducting marriage on behalf of the state.

This, the Church implies, could ultimately lead to disestablishment.

The Home Office's lawyers are insistent that the CoE would not be compelled to officiate gay marriages and it's worth questioning its motives in raising the spectre of disestablishment. But if the secularisation of the British state turns out to be an unexpected benefit of gay marriage then we should welcome it. The more thoughtful members of the Anglican community have already recognised that the Church might benefit from such a move. In an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) commented:

I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.

In an increasingly atheistic and multi-faith society, a secular state, which protects all religions and privileges none, is a model to embrace. If David Cameron wants a real legacy, he could do no better than to bring home Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation".