The Church does not “own” marriage nor have the exclusive right to say who can marry, a government minister has said.
Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said the government was entitled to introduce same-sex marriages as a “change for the better”.
The Liberal Democrat was responding to comments by Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that “not even the Church” owns marriage.
But Lord Carey accused her of putting an “unwarranted slant” on his words.
Ms Featherstone’s comments come as ministers prepare to launch a public consultation on legalising gay marriage next month.
Traditionalists want the law on marriage to remain unchanged.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ms Featherstone said: “Some believe the government has no right to change it (marriage) at all; they want to leave tradition alone.
“I want to challenge that view – it is the government’s fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better.”
Her comments came after Lord Carey, a critic of plans to legalise gay marriage, said “not even the Church” owns marriage.
She said: “(Marriage) is owned by neither the state nor the Church, as the former Archbishop Lord Carey rightly said.
“It is owned by the people.”