A long-awaited official paper on same-sex marriage makes clear that the Church will be powerless to stop the change even if it mobilises hundreds of thousands of objections.
The Government’s national consultation document, which was published this morning, asks the public whether they “agree or disagree” with allowing homosexual couples to have civil weddings.
But it makes clear that, while the question is posed in principle, it is a matter of “how not whether” the change is introduced.
It also warns that the Government will take into account the various points raised in the consultation but “not the number of responses received”.
Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister, said that the launch of the paper was a “hugely important step”, upholding principles of “family, society and personal freedoms”.
But opponents of the move immediately accused the Government of holding a “sham” consultation” in which opposition would be “ignored”.
In its first official statement on same-sex marriage, the Church of England committed itself to “the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman”.
A carefully worded statement, drafted by the Archbishops Council, hinted that the question of marriage could undermine its position as the established church.
Announcing the four-month consultation, Miss Featherstone and the Home Secretary Theresa May said the Government committed to ending the ban on same-sex couples marrying in register offices.
“I believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage, whatever their gender,” said Miss Featherstone.
“Today is a hugely important step as we consider how to lift the ban on civil marriage for same-sex couples.
“This is about the underlying principles of family, society, and personal freedoms.
“Marriage is a celebration of love and should be open to everyone.”