Like millions of other Roman Catholics, Ruth Hunt attended mass on Christmas Day.
She was joined by about 150 other devotees at her central London church, a multitude of nationalities coming together to celebrate a cherished festival. So it was a shame that the magic of the moment was blown apart by a blast of bigotry from the pulpit. Her priest, like many others in Britain, used his sermon on this sacred day to rant about the looming prospect of gay and lesbian people being allowed the same right as anyone else to marry. Instead of encouraging this ultimate act of love, he fulminated about its deep offensiveness.
The diatribe perplexed most people in the pews. For Ruth, it felt more personal. She is Catholic and gay, a reminder that both are the broadest of churches. She is also director of public affairs at the pressure group Stonewall, so deeply embroiled in the struggle for equal rights. “For me, God is love,” she says. “So why do I have to justify my very right to exist?” She was not alone in having to endure priests using their sermons to spout prejudice. For this was the year an insecure Church, confronted by an increasingly secular country, celebrated Christmas by lashing out in ways that only served to demonstrate its own demons and display its impotence.
One befuddled bishop conjured up the spirit of Hitler by comparing the Coalition’s intention to legalise gay marriage to the ideology of fascism. In so doing, he exposed the most basic rule of debate: when you resort to bringing in the Nazis, you have obviously lost the argument.
Almost as absurdly, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales claimed that the Government’s plans were undemocratic and Orwellian. For an outfit headed by someone who proclaims infallibility to complain about the lack of democracy when an elected government seeks to pass a law on a free vote in parliament takes not just the biscuit, but the entire packet.
George Orwell would have been proud of Archbishop Vincent Nichols. Yet all his church has done is shine a spotlight on its diminishing importance, just as the Church of England did when it told half its congregation they were not fit to play a leading role, in voting down women bishops last month. This is, of course, another outdated organisation whose new leader opposes the right of people of the same sex to marry.
Such opposition does not just go against the central tenets of a creed that purports to be based on love and tolerance; it is also politically inept. The census has just revealed the astonishingly rapid collapse of Christianity in this country, with four million fewer people describing themselves in this way than a decade earlier. Little wonder that a quarter of us now claim no religion.
Meanwhile, the more that gay marriage is discussed, the more people warm to the idea. In March, Britain appeared divided over the proposals, with 45 per cent in favour and 36 per cent opposing them – although most people were unaware the issue was on the political agenda. A poll published yesterday in the wake of all the froth and fury from Church leaders found nearly two-thirds in favour and fewer than one-third opposed.
Since some zealots claim that gay marriage is only of interest to the so-called metropolitan elite, it is worth also noting that support has been found higher in the North-east, Yorkshire and West Midlands – some of the most blue-collar parts of Britain – than in London. Additionally, those misanthropes so ready to attack “metropolitan” values should remember nine in 10 voters live in urban areas.
Church leaders and Conservative critics claim that David Cameron is flouting democracy by pushing gay marriage, yet he has been unequivocal on this issue from the time he took over the Tories. I remember well the nerves in his inner circle over the line in his first party conference speech saying he supported marriage “whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man”. Equally, I recall the applause from party activists.
Some say that the gay marriage debate detracts from essential focus on the economy, another sign of tactical desperation. Instead, politicians should take pride in the speed of progress on the path to gay equality. In my lifetime, homosexuality has gone from the prison cell to the altar’s threshold. Although decriminalised in 1967, it was still called a “disability” by Roy Jenkins, the reformist Home Secretary, while the indignant Archbishop of Canterbury argued that homosexual acts were wrong since they misused human organs meant for marital intercourse.
At each step forward, Church leaders allied to conservatives across the political spectrum have opposed reform, then become rapidly reconciled. Gay marriage is a civil right we should all celebrate. It is about a fundamental equality, which is why churches should no more be allowed to ban gay people from marrying in church than those who are black or disabled. With luck, a rapid appeal to the European court of human rights will remove any opt-outs given to hostile religions.
Of course Britain is far from alone in wrestling with this debate as modern attitudes catch up with reality. This week, Uruguay postponed a vote to become the second South American country to legalise gay marriage. Archbishop Nichols and his clerical comrades might like to note that the first was Argentina, an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
It is clear from polling that an older generation, brought up to believe that homosexuality was a crime, has struggled to come to terms with changing mores while younger generations drive society forward in a more liberal direction. In Britain, surveys have found hugely divergent views between pensioners and those under 50. Even in a highly religious nation such as the United States, some two-thirds of adults under 30 now support gay marriage.
Whether on grounds of high principle or low politics, the Government is right to push gay marriage. Likewise, the Canute-like churches and their allies on the self-harming right are wrong to oppose it – unless, of course, they are biblical fundamentalists who also see apostasy as a crime akin to murder and support the stoning of adulterers. Those angry sermons were not just offensive and foolish, but insanely ill-judged from the dog-collared disciples of an institution struggling to remain relevant in a fast-changing world.
Ian Birrell is a former speechwriter for David Cameron