Why is it up to the secular courts to decide what the Church of England does?

Here is something that I simply cannot understand: a gay couple from Essex are planning to sue the Church of England, to force the said church to conduct their wedding service. There is a report here from the Daily Mail, and the Cranmer blog has its own take on the matter here.

I can grasp why the couple in question feel aggrieved; after all they are practising members of the Church of England. The bit that I simply do not grasp is this: how can a civil court have any power over the beliefs and practices of a Church? How can a civil lawsuit compel believers in matters of theology? If the couple in question have a beef with their church, surely their best bet, indeed their only bet, is to initiate a process in an ecclesiastical court? (Most people do not realise this, but there are Anglican ecclesiastical courts in this country.)

I am not a lawyer, but surely in religious matters a law court (of the non-ecclesiastical type) has no authority. It is simply absurd to ask a judge and jury to decide on matters of religion, especially a religion that few of them may be informed about or share.

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Or am I the one who is being absurd here? In fact this country has a track record of the secular power poking its nose into religious matters. In modern times there has been the Gorham judgement of 1850 when a secular court made a pronouncement on a matter of theology, in opposition to the wishes of the Anglican bishops. More recently there has been the case of a British court deciding who is or is not Jewish, in the case of the child who wished to be admitted to the Jewish Free School,  something one would have thought would have been the exclusive province of the London Beth Din.

Indeed, if we go back to the sixteenth century we have numerous examples of the secular power telling the Church what it can and cannot do, what it can and cannot believe, starting with the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533. 

With a history like ours, the chances of any church being able to refuse to marry anyone who wants it look slim indeed.

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