DAVID CAMERON faces one of the biggest tests of his premiership today (Tuesday) when MPs vote on legislation to legalise gay marriage. One retired County Durham priest talks to Duncan Leatherdale about  the plan.

IT is up to the church to decide what it can and can’t do, not the state to impose its orders, according to Bill Broad.

BILL BROAD, a former vicar who retired eight years ago, welcomes the debate on gay marriage and is opposed to the Government’s pledge that no church or religious institution would be forced to marry a same-sex couple.

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In a bid to head off opposition by Tory MPs Culture Secretary Maria Miller has promised a “quadruple lock” which she claimed would guarantee religious organisations’ right to not be forced to conduct a gay marriage and protect them from lawsuits.

Speaking last year Mrs Miller said: "I am absolutely clear that no religious organisation will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, and I would not bring in a Bill which would allow that.

"European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional quadruple legal lock.

“But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so.”

But the plan went even further as far as the Churches of England and Wales are concerned, and Mrs Miller said it would be illegal for either institution to marry a same-sex couple.

Pertinent perhaps given the recent court success of a gay couple who sued a Cornish hotel for discrimination by refusing to allow them to share a bed, but unnecessary according to Mr Broad.

Gay marriage is already banned by the Anglican Church’s own doctrines, and any minister found to have performed such a service faces sanctions from within the organisation.

The former priest, who now lives in the tiny village of Thornley down the hill from Tow Law in County Durham, said the argument that the Government imposed ban would be an extra level of security against possible future lawsuits is understandable but not needed.

He said: “The Church of England needs to stand by its own decisions, it’s not for the Government to protect it if people are not happy.

“But this debate is going on within the Church, it should be up to the Church to decide what it wants to do.”

Mr Broad has been a priest for 45 years and has worked around the country in both parishes and prisons.

The last 14 years of his career were spent in the Durham Diocese, primarily in Blackhall and Newton Aycliffe.

He was also one of the founders of Justice First Ltd, a Stockton based charity that helps asylum seekers.

Despite his retirement Mr Broad still takes a keen interest in the Church’s affairs.

He said: “I believe that marriage is a minor sacrament of the Church and that people of the same sex should be allowed to share this sacrament and to marry in church.

“I also believe that the Church authorities in any denomination have a right to make rules of conduct for its clergy, but I also believe that the clergy have a civil right to disobey those authorities and face the disciplinary actions that may follow.

“To take an example, the Roman Catholic Church will not allow its bishops to ordain women. A Roman Catholic bishop cannot be prevented by law from ordaining a woman, but he can be punished by the Church for doing so.”

He accepts going against the order of the Church will result in punishment, with ultimately the possibility of being defrocked, but Mr Broad insists it is not for the Government to legislate on.

He said: “The present legislation passing through Parliament seems to say that I will not be allowed to marry same sex couples by law.

“This means that, were I to do so, I could be prosecuted by the authorities for breaching the law and perhaps even imprisoned for doing so.

“This is inherently wrong. I believe that the Church of England has a perfect right to forbid me to exercise a freedom allowed by law and proceed against me in Church courts for disobedience.

“They have various sanctions; ultimately they could defrock me. But I do not believe that the State should make it illegal for a Minister in any Church to exercise a freedom allowed by law.”

Helpfully, Mr Broad does provide a solution to the Government’s predicament.

He said: “I would suggest that Parliament should simply agree to the right of any denomination (including the Church of England) to refuse to marry same sex couples.

“The General Synod of the Church of England should then decide how its clergy are to be allowed to use this freedom.”