The Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, the most senior member of the Church of England to back the Out4Marriage campaign for marriage equality has warned that the Church of England risks squandering a “precious opportunity to get real” by backing same-sex marriage.

Writing in The Times, one of the leading pro-equal marriage newspapers, the Bishop said: “What, if no definition of marriage means anything until it expresses itself in real marriages? The terms of these have been remarkably fluid. If marriage is defined by who is allowed to marry, there are seven definitions in the Bible, and many more since. How about deceased wives’ sisters? Divorcees? Transsexuals?”

“John Milton determined 350 years ago that although inheritance, property, sex and procreation were significant, they were not marriage’s defining essence. That was a loving relationship. All else was secondary and all who thought otherwise he regarded as Pharisees. Milton’s radical notion, fed by Puritan zeal, was based on rigorous Biblical scholarship. We are only just catching up with its profound implications. If it is correct, people define marriage by the commitments they make and the lives they lead.”

He adds: “Marriage is a fundamental social good. It builds community and enriches society by self-giving love, stability and faithfulness. Today some gay people want to marry. In my lifetime they have been seen as perverts, criminals, mental cases, stunted developers and the butts of many a joke. After fifty years of careful reflection, it turns out that every society contains a small minority of gay people who cannot and should not be “cured”. They are just people after all. Failing to recognise this is cruel, damages society and stigmatises people.”

Reminding readers that the Church of England was once an advocate for ending discrimination against gay people. He writes: “In 1954, when homosexuality still engendered ostracism, hypocrisy, blackmail and the occasional suicide, the Church of England Moral Welfare Council produced a report whose humane tenor surprised many. The Church helped to lead the way through struggles for decriminalisation in the 1960s. By the 1970s it was examining in depth the moral and theological implications. In 1989 the House of Bishops commissioned the Osborne report, with theologians studying the biblical evidence, church tradition and homosexual experience to agree a way forward consistent with Christian values.

“Then, tragically, came the heebie-jeebies. Militant zealots framed any change as an attack on the Bible. The Osborne report was suppressed and the House of Bishops substituted it with Issues in Human Sexuality, which took a more traditional, negative stance. This interim paper hardened into a policy statement and eventually a diktat as sure as holy writ.”

He writes that by 1998, “the Lambeth Conference inaugurated a new age of fear, recrimination and fantasy. The worldwide Anglican Communion agreed a motion that ‘homosexual practice’ is ‘incompatible with Scripture’. A new Anglican shibboleth was born. New model apostles and evangelists circled the globe to export it and drum up support, especially in Africa, where homosexuality was way below the radar. The Church of England was caught in the headlights and bishops pretended to be more conservative than they actually were to try to hold things together, while hoping that the subject would go away.

“It didn’t,” he argues. “Back in the world that Jesus loves, society had not halted in its tracks. A general sense grew that all citizens are equal, regardless of sex, disability or sexual orientation.”

The bishop added: “I commend marriage equality openly on the basis of the values of the Sermon on the Mount. Many congregations now contain gay couples who regard themselves as married, some legally married in foreign jurisdictions. Spineless handwringing is not enough, nor the stale, toxic rhetoric of recent years. One function of a leader in any organisation is to help their people to live in the real world, not hunker down in their own Pharisaic Disneylands.

“I expected brickbats and received a few. But the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The great divide was between those who knew and loved somebody gay and others for whom the whole question was theoretical. Some emphatically did not want it raised, out of embarrassment or fear of conflict.”

In his column, the Bishop explains how a parishioner once discussed the issue with him:-

“Bishop,” she said. “What is this nonsense about gay marriage?”

“Well . . .”

“There was someone preaching here recently,” she cut in,

“who seemed to think there was something wrong with gay marriage. He was retired, so I suppose it’s understandable, but what he needs to know is that there are five gay couples in this village and they are as much a part of our community as anyone else. Stupid man.”

He ends his article stating that Prime Minister David Cameron, a passionate advocate of marriage equality, “has given us [the Church] a precious opportunity to get real. We would be fools to squander it.”

The bishop did not comment on Mr Cameron’s proposals to make it illegal for the Church of England to perform same-sex marriages. A number of leading bishops have said that the Church was not consulted on the move and that it was not necessary.