Janet Street-Porter: Gay weddings and Christian hypocrisy

For gay Catholics, December 2005 is not going to mark the season of rejoicing
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December 2005 will go down in history books as the first truly "pink" month of the new millennium, as same-sex couples will be legally entitled to enter into civil partnerships in Britain.

On 21 December, the day after the statutory period for posting impending unions, Register Offices all over Britain will be formalising gay relationships in a simple ceremony.

In Windsor, where Charles and Camilla tied the knot earlier this year, Sir Elton John and his partner David Furnish, witnessed by their parents, will be committing themselves to each other in probably the highest-profile gay union ever. A lavish party will follow, where glamorous frocks and major jewellery are bound to be worn - by the male as well as female guests - if Elton's previous festivities are anything to go by.

Even the notoriously private George Michael has said he will take advantage of the new laws to ensure that his partner Kenny will benefit. So, three cheers for a brave and appropriate piece of legislation that will bring nothing but joy to all who take advantage of it.

And, as heterosexual couples seem to make such a hash of being married (with a track record of four divorces, I have certainly contributed to the grim statistics) who can say how these new civil partnerships will pan out? There's every chance that for the next generation of young people the role model of a stable relationship may come from the gay community rather than the heterosexual one.

For all the imminent celebrations, we are still at the first stage of overhauling the laws relating to marriage. Next June, two lesbians who went through a marriage ceremony in Vancouver in 2003 will go to the High Court and ask for their partnership to be recognised in the same way as a heterosexual one. For although civil partnerships are an important step for the gay community, legally they are not going to be considered as having all the same rights as marriages between a couple of different sexes.

Professor Celia Kitzinger and Professor Sue Wilson plan to argue that English law contravenes the European Human Rights Convention. If successful, their landmark case will represent true equality for the homosexual community in Britain.

For gay Catholics, however, December 2005 is not going to mark the season of rejoicing. Pope Benedict XVI has ruled that homosexual men cannot become priests. Given that the Catholic Church is said to have accommodated a female Pope and ignored countless children born to priests, cardinals and bishops, supposedly celibate, the new instruction marks the be-ginning of a less inclusive approach to their faith.

At the present time, there are many gay men at the highest levels of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, so what does this ruling mean for them? Is it just another example of one rule for the many and a different rule for the few? The Church of England is also struggling (and failing) to accommodate the evangelical wing of the Anglican faith, who shun homosexuality and adopt an approach to the faith that is decidedly reactionary. The Church of England, as it is constituted, cannot exist for very much longer, with African bishops and the fast-growing evangelical movement both waging spiritual wars against homosexuality. The new Archbishop of York, enthroned yesterday with much pomp and pageantry, will be presiding over a declining flock because the chances of reconciliation between the two wings of the Anglican Church seem to get smaller every year.

Recently, I appeared on Question Time with Stephen Green from the Christian Voice organisation, who made a huge play of reading quotations from the Old Testament before answering anything from the audience. I outraged his supporters by insisting that, as a believer with a small "b", I didn't think one group of Christians had a hotline to God because of their constant referral to a Higher Being and pedantic reliance on Biblical texts.

Honestly, from reading my subsequent hate mail I can only conclude that right-wing Christians don't want anyone else to be in their club. Their view of my faith is ultimately harmful and divisive, just as is the ruling on homosexuality emanating from the new Pope.

According to Pope Benedict, being gay is something like a severe dose of pneumonia, a serious illness that with the right care, you can cure. The Congregation for Catholic Education has ruled that men with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies cannot become priests, but anyone who has been celibate for three years and has "overcome" their sexuality, can take holy orders. Even more ludicrous, this ruling does not apply to anyone already ordained. Peter Tatchell, of the pressure group Outrage, thinks the ruling is pure hypocrisy - he estimates that one third of the Catholic clergy in Britain is gay - so what does the future hold for them? Do they carry on as usual, living a lie?

Faced with the outcry about the number of child-abuse cases involving priests, the Vatican clearly felt it had to redefine the requirements needed to enter the clergy. For many, the vow of chastity is a 21st-century anomaly, as redundant as focusing on sexuality. Surely, a priest who can serve the church best is one who is mature, rounded in the ways of the world, at ease with himself and able to offer spiritual and emotional support to his flock. And there is absolutely zero evidence that all paedophiles are homosexuals. If you look at child-abuse cases worldwide, are there really more offences committed by the Catholic priesthood than any other group? Of course, the large number of cases that have come to light are a cause for concern, but surely his Holiness could have come up with a better form of quality control for the priesthood?

Jesus seemed to me effortlessly to accommodate everyone within his teaching, touching all who met him, non-judgemental in his friendships. In a materialistic world, we need faith to guide us through turbulent times and instil real, as opposed to transitory, values in young and old alike. Unfortunately, more wars are being fought in the name of religion than ever before, and even those churches which preach peace and reconciliation are unable to apply those rules to their own members.

Although some Catholics claim the Pope's ruling was better than an outright ban on homosexuals becoming priests, what has been proposed is unworkable and will deprive the Catholic Church of talented and inspirational clergy. The new Archbishop of York, who has spoken very forcefully of the need to be inclusive, also needs to tell evangelical Christians that demonising homosexuals is not Christian. Christianity is a robust faith which can easily adapt to the 21st century, but in the hands of the current Pope, it has decided not to do so.