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

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

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".

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.