The Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches has described the signing into law of equal marriage for England and Wales as a “remarkable step”.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill received Royal Assent on Wednesday afternoon and the first same-sex weddings are due to take place by the summer of 2014.

In a statement, Derek McAuley said: “Unitarians began this journey in April 2008 when our General Assembly supported the right to hold civil partnership ceremonies in places of worship.

“At the time it seemed so radical and unachievable. To move so quickly to same-sex marriage in church as well as in civil settings is a remarkable step.

“We would congratulate members of all political parties in both Houses of Parliament who have steadfastly supported equal marriage. To our opponents we say that your fears will be found groundless.

“We are pleased that Parliament accepted our arguments that those faith groups who wished to host same-sex marriages should be able to do so. Religious freedom meant the right to say yes as well as no. This was, of course, not in the original consultation paper yet the government responded to our sincerely held views.”

Mr McAuley added: “Same-sex marriage has been controversial, however, with our friends in the Quakers, Liberal and Reform Judaism and in other faith groups; we have prevented this from becoming a ‘culture war’ between faith and secular society. There is clear support for same-sex marriage across people of many faiths and none.

“Unitarians will be working with the government to ensure that the regulations that will govern provision of same-sex marriage are workable and that the lessons surrounding the somewhat flawed introduction of civil partnerships in religious premises will be learned. So let’s celebrate today; with the hard work ahead.”

Although the Catholic Church and Church of England is opposed to equal marriage, faith groups such as the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Yesterday, the Catholic Church complained that equal marriage had been “rushed through” Parliament.