Following a letter to the Times yesterday by several high-profile Anglican clergymen, wherein they affirmed their support for marriage equality, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, has said that the current opposition by the Church to equal marriage is similar to the view of eighteenth century Christians that slavery was “God-given.”

The comments were made at a conference on homophobia in the Church, held yesterday evening in London, just as the Church is preparing a formal response to the current government consultations on extending marriage to same-sex couples.

Bishop Holtam said: “Experience might lead us to be cautious about the certainty with which moral positions are built with Biblical support. Before Wilberforce, Christians in this country saw slavery as having Biblical support for what was the God-given in the ordering of creation. In South Africa, Apartheid was seen in the same way by the Dutch Reformed Church.”

“Within the churches,” he added, “Christians conscientiously disagree about the interpretation and significance of the six Biblical passages referring to homosexuality.”

The comments will be seen as a direct confrontation with many traditionalist factions in the Church, who will gather in the capital tomorrow to discuss the ordination of openly gay bishops.

Rev Holtam warned against what he described as a “very big gap” that had opened up between the Church and the society at large, as a result of an “ill-tempered debate” over sexual orientation. He added: “Most people now see the Church’s avoidance of equality legislation as immoral and it undermines us… It is a disaster that we have allowed the Church to be seen as the opposition to equal marriage.”

More disturbing, he said, was the distinction the government has sought to draw between a “religious” and “civil” marriage. “Some Christians might like to say there are more important issues than gay marriage but we are not connecting with our society and for the churches this should be a mission priority,” he said.

The conference yesterday was organised by the Cutting Edge Consortium, a group of national bodies that campaign for sexual equality in religious organisations.

Meanwhile, sources have confirmed to PinkNews.co.uk that several Catholic priests distributed during Mass today a leaflet urging worshippers to campaign against marriage equality. One statement reads: “The Church is opposing the Government’s policy because it cares for the common good of society. Society should support the best means of raising the next generation. It’s about what marriage means for all – it’s not just about what happens in churches.”