In a forthright interview with the Daily Telegraph, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has compared prime minister David Cameron to a dictator over his support of gay marriage.

Last year, Mr Cameron announced his support of the introduction of civil marriage for gay couples, telling the Conservative Party conference: “to anyone who has reservations, I say this: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.

“So I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”

Today, Dr Senatmu, who is in Jamaica to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain told the newspaper: “Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.

“I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.”

He appears to compare the prime minister to a dictator saying: “We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.

“It’s almost like somebody telling you that the Church, whose job is to worship God [will be] an arm of the Armed Forces. They must take arms and fight. You’re completely changing tradition.”

Mr Cameron has been criticised by other, more liberal religious leaders for not proposing ‘full’ gay marriage. The government is currently consulting on the introduction of ‘civil’ gay marriage, services that will not be held in religious institutions.

The government has already introduced civil partnerships that can be held in religious buildings, though these are still legally non-religious unions.

Liberal and Reform Judaism together with the Quaker and Unitarian churches have called on the government to allow gay marriages to be conducted by religious groups who wish to hold them.

Dr Sentamu warned that the government is likely to face widespread opposition to any change in the law in Parliament. “The rebellion is going to come not only from the bishops. You’re going to get it from across the benches and in the Commons.

“If you genuinely would like the registration of civil partnerships to happen in a more general way, most people will say they can see the drift. But if you begin to call those ‘marriage’, you’re trying to change the English language.”

“That does not mean you diminish, condemn, criticise, patronise any same-sex relationships because that is not what the debate is about.

“The Church has always stood out – Jesus actually was the odd man out. I’d rather stick with Jesus than be popular because it looks odd.”

Dr Sentamu was imprisoned by real-life Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1974 because of his judicial independence while practising as a lawyer in the country before entering into the priesthood.

The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “Dr Sentamu is a religious authoritarian who wants to impose his personal opposition to same-sex marriage on the rest of society. It is not a loving Christian value to demand legal discrimination against gay couples and to treat them as inferior, second class citizens with fewer rights than everyone else.

“The government is proposing to legalise same-sex marriages in register offices only. This will not affect churches. The Archbishop has no valid grounds for objecting to civil registrations that will ensure equal marriage rights for all couples. The vast majority of British people, including many Christians, support the right of same-sex couples to get married. Dr Sentamu is intolerant and out of touch.”

In 2009, Dr Sentamu did speak out against plans to introduce the death penalty for some gay sex acts in his native Uganda. He told the BBC: “People may have very clear, what I call traditional, views about homosexuality but we as a communion are committed to listening to the experiences of homosexual people.

“You can’t do that on one hand and then have language [in the bill] which in many ways seems to suggest homosexual people are not the children of God.

“They deserve the best we gave give in pastoral care and friendship. And I’m quite sure that the response the Church of Uganda will make in due course will have to take into account all of these realities.”