Nick Herbert the Minister for Policing at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice has said that churches that wish to solemnise marriages of gay couples should be allowed to do so. He said the Church of England’s current position has made him feel “distant” from his own faith.

Mr Herbert has become the most senior Government minister to call for religious same-sex marriage, something his own department had not proposed prior to the consultation on equal civil marriage, which closed on Thursday.

Mr Herbert told The Times: “No religious institution should be forced to conduct a gay marriage against their belief.” But added that there is a “very strong case for saying that on the ground of religious freedom, if churches want to conduct such ceremonies they should be allowed to.”

The minister reflects the submission to the Home Office by Out4Marriage, the campaign for equal marriage, that argued that banning same-sex marriages even in churches, synagogues and meeting houses that wished to hold them would break equality laws on the grounds of religious freedom. Out4Marriage wrote that the position would open the Government to “long, costly and unnecessary legal challenges on the grounds that it restricts free religious expression; it manifestly fails to deal with the nuance of the issue, and is an infringement on both LGBT, religious, human and civil rights.”

Mr Herbert, who is in a civil partnership, was asked if he’d have preferred to have been married in church and how he felt about the extraordinary attack on equal marriage by the Church of England. “I have never in my life felt more distant from the Church — and I consider myself to be a Christian — than I do at the moment. And I’m sad about that.”

Mr Herbert criticised his own Government colleague Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, who argued that equal marriage was not a priority. Mr Herbert said: “Everybody accepts that the overriding priority is to deal with the deficit, but Governments can do more than one thing. Since when is equality not a priority?”

Mr Herbert entered into a civil partnership with Jason Eades in 2009 and said it is unfair that they could not marry: “The longer this debate has gone on, the more strongly I have felt about it. I am getting fed up with people metaphorically jabbing a finger in my chest and saying, ‘You should put up with a civil partnership’. I don’t think they would like it if I said, ‘Well, sorry, you should accept a civil partnership too’.”

“I have a powerful belief in the institutions in this country, and the institution of marriage is one. I want to cherish and protect and build on it. I think that extending it to gay people would be a strengthening of that institution, and I think an institution that is so important in our society should be available to everyone.”

Mr Herbert also said: “I didn’t come out until relatively late. You think it’s the hardest decision that you could ever make, then once you’ve done it you feel powerful and wonder why it was so hard. But there are still kids being bullied in school. There is still a situation where we have no Premier League football players who feel able to come out. The idea that this is a finished agenda is completely wrong. It’s not.”

Asked if he could ever foresee a gay prime minister he replied: “I think by the time that happens, and I’m sure it will, it won’t be an issue. I have never ever wanted to be defined as somebody who was gay. I’ve just wanted to get on in politics without anyone remarking on my sexuality. I don’t just want to be tolerated.”

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper had earlier called for religious same-sex marriage. In an article for PinkNews.co.uk, she wrote: “Whilst churches and other places of worship should not be required to conduct same sex marriages, the Government is wrong to prevent those that want to from doing so. If ministers are really serious about supporting marriage, respecting religious freedom and tackling discrimination, they should follow the logic of their own arguments and make further changes too.”

Mr Herbert’s boss, Home Secretary Theresa May recorded a video for the Out4Marriage campaign where she said: “Marriage binds us together, it brings stability, I think marriage makes us stronger. But I believe also in commitment and in fidelity in marriage, I think these are good things and we should enable them to flourish.

“That’s why I believe if two people care for each other, if they love each other, if they want to commit to each other and spend the rest of their lives together then they should be able to get married, and marriage should be for everyone, and that’s why I’m coming Out4Marriage.”