LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England attacked government's plan to allow gay couples to marry, saying on Tuesday it was ill thought out and risked creating the biggest rift between the state and the Church for centuries.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government wants to extend the full legal status of marriage to homosexuals, who have since 2005 been able to contract unions known as civil partnerships.
The plan has provoked anger from church leaders including the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and some within Cameron's own Conservative party who accuse the government of interfering in religious matters.
In its formal response to the proposals, the Church of England said the move would change the "intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman".
"Several major elements of the government's proposals have not been thought through properly and are not legally sound," the Church said in its official response.
The Church of England forms part of the structure of the state and is headed by Queen Elizabeth.
"The consultation overlooks the implication of what is proposed for the position of the established Church," it said.
"We also believe that imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise."
Twice as many Britons marry in secular, civil ceremonies as in religious rites. About a quarter of weddings in England take place in Church of England ceremonies.
Ministers have been adamant that a new law would be brought in before the next election in 2015. They say that under their proposals, churches and other religious establishments would not be obliged to modify their marriage rules.
But the Church of England said it was doubtful that a refusal to let same sex couples marry in their churches would withstand a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.
It said changing the way marriage was defined by the state would change the definition for everyone and impact the nature of marriages solemnised in churches or other places of worship.
The row comes at a difficult time for the Church of England which is grappling with the deeply divisive issue of whether to allow women bishops, which has put traditionalists and liberals at odds.
It is also in the process of choosing a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, to replace the outgoing Rowan Williams next year.
British media quoted senior church sources as saying the gay marriage row could lead to the end of the link between the church and state, first established in 1534 when King Henry VIII broke from papal authority in Rome and declared himself the Church's head.
"The Church of England's unique place in the current marriage law of England means that the proposals will potentially have a very significant impact on our ability to serve the people of the nation as we have always done," the Church said in its response.
The Bishop of Sheffield Steven Croft told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: "Whilst this is being presented as a kind of minor extension to what marriage means, actually, from the point of view of the Church and of society, it is a really, really fundamental change to an institution which has been at the core of our society for hundreds of years."
Gay rights group Stonewall accused church leaders of scaremongering and said there was no evidence people would take legal action to force churches to perform gay marriages. It said up to 85 percent of Britons under 50 supported state proposals.
However, more than 550,000 have signed the Coalition for Marriage online petition against same-sex marriage, with signatories including religious leaders and about 20 lawmakers from across the political spectrum.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)