The Church of Sweden has given its support to proposals that would allow gay couples to marry in church ceremonies on the same basis as heterosexual couples.

An official government report, due to be presented next week, would amend existing marriage laws to ensure that all couples have the same marriage rights regardless of their sexual orientation.

Bishop Claes-Bertil Ytterberg, head of the Church of Sweden’s Västerås diocese, signalled his support for the changes.

“We are prepared to carry out partnerships for homosexuals that have the force of law,” he said.

According to Sweden’s TheLocal.se, Bishop Ytterberg said that the proposals will make the Church of Sweden the first major denomination in the world to sanction full gay marriage.

Under existing legislation gay couples can have a civil partnership blessed in church but the legal weight of such unions can only be provided in civil ceremonies.

If the new system is put in place churches would retain the right to perform marriages but individual priests would have to seek a marriage licence independently.

Gay marriage has been a controversial issue within the Church of Sweden, an evangelical Luteran church.

Ytterberg has stressed the importance of taking a clear line:

“It is important that the Church of Sweden can be ecumenically weighty by being one step ahead and showing potential pathways. We are first in this context,” he said, according to TheLocal.se.

Although the marriage proposals have been supported by the Church of Sweden, Ytterberg has made it clear that the word ‘marriage’ will be reserved for heterosexuals while the new marriage laws will be renamed ‘cohabitation laws.’

“The word ‘marriage’ is so closely linked by tradition to the relationship between a man and a women,” he said.

“I admit that this is not a simple message to communicate,” he added.

The governmental report will undergo consultation with key stakeholders next week.

It is likely that the marriage laws will receive broad public support.

An EU poll conducted by Angus Reid Global Monitor in December 2006 found Sweden to have the second largest public approval ratings for the legalization of same-sex marriage.