What puzzles me most about Cardinal O’Brien’s comments concerning "gay marriage" in the Sunday Telegraph is that they suggest he lives in a world so radically disconnected from mine that we might as well be living in different centuries as well as denominations. I am not surprised that he should seek to defend the institution of marriage – on the contrary – nor am I surprised that he should seek to uphold the Church’s right to decide how it administers the sacraments.
I am surprised, however, that he uses words like "harmful" to describe civil partnerships and the moves to offer civil marriage to same-sex partners as "grotesque" and a form of "madness". I am surprised because the Cardinal lives, in fact, in the same world as me, a world in which gay couples and colleagues and family and friends are not even unusual, let alone bizarre, a world which, since the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, has not fallen apart, but simply showed what we had long suspected: that gay people are not that different from everyone else, and gay relationships are not that different either.
This seems to be more and more widely understood, if surveys of social attitudes are anything to go by. I suspect Civil Partnerships have played a part in this, making it difficult for people to sustain a caricature of gay people as ‘disordered’ and "intrinsically evil", as Roman Catholic teaching puts it, if what they encounter is not something sulphurous from the last days of Sodom, but two people celebrating their exclusive and faithful commitment to each other with a slice of cake and a glass of Prosecco thrown in.
I used to wonder if these occasions would create a whole new kind of social awkwardness as older generations, who grew up in an era when homosexuality was simply a crime, sat in lockjawed silence through a ceremony they would much rather not have to attend at all (if indeed they did attend); but I have not found it to be the case. No-one bats an eyelid, not because they are blind to what is going on in front of them, but because they can see what is going on in front of them, an attempt at goodness and grace that all should uphold and honour. Even the leader of the Conservative Party gets it.
I appreciate how difficult this emerging truth can be for some to deal with, not least religious groups with traditions which have long denigrated homosexuality and overlooked the God-given dignity of those who find themselves so oriented. I belong to one. I think I appreciate too how religious leaders feel threatened by aggressive secularism and seek to resist what they may interpret as its challenges. But it will get more and more difficult to sustain the former as we get more and more used to the reality of gay relationships; and as for the latter, I fear the Cardinal with this intervention has not halted the onward march of aggressive secularism, but strengthened it.
The Rev Richard Coles is a broadcaster, and parish priest in Finedon, Northamptonshire
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