There's a beautiful story in the Old Testament about two young men who meet and fall in love. Jonathan and David dedicate themselves to each other before their God in what is described as a covenant using words of great ceremony. Jonathan's father Saul is jealous of his son's lover and tries to kill him. When Jonathan defends David Saul accuses him of bringing shame on the family, blaming his mother's 'perverse and rebellious' nature (why is it always our mothers' fault?). The lovers part, never to see each other again; for not long after both father and son are killed in battle and David is left to lament '... your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women'.
Priests and rabbis may not approve of this interpretation of the story of David and Jonathan. Leviticus, after all, labels homosexuality an 'abomination' and St Paul makes arguably negative noises about it, but as a great many biblical scholars have noted, the Bible is full of contradictions. With so many other Levitical prescriptions long since jettisoned - eating shellfish (another abomination), women's subservient roles, enslaving neighbouring peoples - too many Christian leaders still cling to literal interpretations.
Now the Same-Sex Marriage Bill has passed its first hurdle in Parliament we can expect more. The Catholic Church has placed itself at the forefront of opposition. Bowing to anti-gay pressure, Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, recently axed masses for the LGBT community which had been held in a church in Soho. The official reason is that they are incompatible with Church doctrine, but six years ago, when the same Archbishop instigated them, they were no such thing. Over Christmas the Bill was likened to Nazism, and was said to threaten 'our fundamental humanity' as well as the 'essence of the human creature'. Further Nazi comparisons have been made by the Vatican's doctrinal supremo, Gerhard Ludwig Müller. This language is wholly inappropriate and threatening. Do the Pope and his bishops really believe that the union of two people poses a risk so high that they must subvert the message of peace and goodwill of the Christmas moment for it?
The Catholic Church tells us it's not the homosexual nature that's a sin, but the act. In acknowledging that a homosexual nature exists the Vatican has already conceded a point to science, but its cynical semantic fiddling establishes the real problem for religious hierarchies who have chosen to equate consensual adult lovemaking with immorality: they've made of love a vice. I was brought up a Catholic. When I was thirteen, thanks to Church teachings, my sexuality terrorised me. I believed then what I was told, that we were created in God's image, but why did that not include the part of me that finds peace, security, intimacy and sexual fulfilment in the love of another man? If there is a God, what is it about me that's not in His image? The Catholic Church offered no rational explanation only dogma. I rather wish someone had told me the story of David and Jonathan then, but it was only years later that I was able to celebrate the advent of true love.
Not every Catholic voice is set against me, though. The late Cardinal Martini believed that LGBT people should be welcomed in churches and even approved a form of recognised 'union' for same-sex couples, a position reiterated by his last interview, published just after his death in August 2012 . Martini represented a rare conciliatory voice among leading theologians. Archbishop Nichols' original decision to allow the Soho masses was inspired by this liberal breeze. Now there's only a dead calm about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
There's an irony in this. Seventeen hundred years ago the Roman Emperor Constantine extended toleration to Christianity for the first time. In less than 80 years Christian leaders were busy stamping out diversity. The Church has never been good at tolerance, it seems. Antagonism towards homosexuality may stem from whimsical texts like Leviticus, but there is also something wilful about this intolerance, something irrational. When Jonathan asks of his father why David deserves to die - 'What has he done?' - Saul's response is irrational: he seizes a spear to kill his own son because he can't really explain his rage. Religious leaders have become like Saul. By rejecting UN resolutions to end criminalisation of homosexuality and burning the rhetoric of sin and immorality on their altars, they condemn people across the world to prison, violence, even death.
I have to say, I don't especially care about marriage per se: in terms of legal recognition civil partnerships have done it for me, but I know others feel very differently. Over Christmas I had dinner with a good friend, an instinctively Tory squire from the shires, heartbroken that the Gay Marriage Bill will not allow him to marry his partner in church because of the manoeuvrings of some senior members of the Anglican communion; after all, at the Tory Party conference last year a former Archbishop of Canterbury pre-empted Catholic Nazi analogies.
Humanity won't come to an end if my friend marries the man he loves, because marriage never has been just one thing. It's older than any current religion and its meaning and purpose have changed over the millennia, for better or worse. That's why it survives. If you want it to be a sacrament, then it is; if just a contract of legal recognition, it's that too. It's been a romantic escapade and a ball and chain. It's been an excuse for legitimising rape and a life-long journey of adventure. If it's a spiritual affirmation of love and commitment you want, it can be that as well, for just as 'the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul' so let it be now with us.