The Archbishop of York has said that while allowing gay couples to marry in civil ceremonies may meet their ‘emotional needs’, if they are not experiencing legal discrimination it would be a ‘misuse of the state’.

Dr John Sentamu is considered a strong contender to take the place of current Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams when he stands down later this year.

He prompted controversy earlier this year when he compared the prime minister’s support for equal non-religious marriage rights for gay and straight couples with the actions of a dictator.

In extracts of his response to the government consultation on how to introduce equal civil marriage rights for gay and straight couples published today in the Daily Telegraph, Dr Sentamu maintains that the institution should be reserved for straight couples.

Dr Senatmu acknowledged the Church had been “complicit” in discriminating against gay people in the past, “and sometimes worse”, and said there is still “much penance to be done before we can look our homosexual brothers and sisters in the eye.”

He writes: “Up to now, the only reason I have been given for a desire to redefine marriage to embrace same-sex relationships is that it meets an emotional need of some same-sex couples (only some, as I have forcefully been led to believe some reject the concept of marriage altogether).”

But, Dr Sentamu argues, it is not appropriate for the state to change social attitudes, “reassure” or meet the “emotional needs” of citizens; it should only “remedy injustice” if it is operating discriminatory systems.

The Archbishop contends that the separate system of civil partnerships implemented for gay couples meets their legal, if not emotional, needs and as a result they do not experience discrimination by the state.

He continues: “If the rights of civil partners are met differently in law to those of married couples, there is no discrimination in law, and if civil partnerships are seen as somehow ‘second class’ that is a social attitude which will change and cannot, in any case, be turned around by redefining the law of marriage.

“It may even make social attitudes go in reverse gear. So I submit that to use the law to redefine marriage when there is no legal inequity involved is a misuse of the statute.

“It must never be used to give comfort or reassurance but to remedy an injustice.”

Earlier this year, Dr Senatmu had told the Telegraph: “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 added: “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.”

His comments and comparison of the prime minister with a dictator led to protests outside York Minster.