The former prime minister's statement is released on Monday through Freedom to Marry, a newly formed group of senior Conservatives in favour of churches having the option to offer gay marriage. Major said the move was a "courageous and genuine attempt to offer security and comfort to people who – at present – may be together, yet feel apart" and urged ministers to "move on" with the policy.
"I fully understand that there are many who will find this difficult to accept, as will the churches," said the statement. "But the prime minister has made it clear that the churches will be free to make their own decisions upon whether to conduct such marriages – and that is entirely the right approach."
Members of Freedom to Marry, which announced its formation in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph, include the education secretary and ally of David Cameron, Michael Gove, the London mayor, Boris Johnson, the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, former defence minister Nicholas Soames, and the influential editor of the ConservativeHome website, Tim Montgomerie.
Its formation comes as the Tory party faces an increasingly bitter divide on the issue. In an attempt to heal such wounds, Freedom to Marry's letter says it accepts that "many" who oppose gay marriage are not homophobic "but have a profound religious commitment about the nature of marriage".
However, the Tory backbencher and opponent of gay marriage Peter Bone warned that the issue was going to cause "a great amount of damage" in the party, in which up to 130 MPs may or are likely to vote against the bill. It is expected to pass with support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Bone also claimed on Sky's Murnaghan programme that promises that churches would not be forced to conduct gay marriages could not be enforced because of European court rulings.
"If you say that marriage is not solely between a man and a woman, which is the case at the moment, there can be no European court intervention: if you broaden this to allow some churches to do it, what will happen when a [same sex] couple go to a local church saying that they want to be married, [and] that church turns them down, they're off to the European court and hey-ho, all churches will be forced to do it," he added.
Former minister Nick Herbert, who is in a civil partnership and helped prepare the legislation on same-sex marriage, defended the bill, insisting it would be explicit that churches could not be forced to conduct such ceremonies, and arguing religious freedom was protected by article nine of the European convention on human rights.
Earlier in the same programme Johnson urged the prime minister to press ahead with the bill so the party could start to heal its rifts. "The Labour party will vote for it, the Liberals will vote for it, huge numbers of Tories will vote for it, whack it through, let's knock this thing on the head," he said. "Let's get it done and let's talk about the real Conservative things we want to do like encouraging aspiration, entrepreneurship, cutting taxes, cutting crime, creating a fairer society."
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