Quakers show the way on same-sex marriage

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
31 Jul 2009

As a Quaker, there are times when I become very frustrated with my denomination. The slowness with which Quakers tend to take decisions is a frequent cause of this. But today, I am proud to be a Quaker – more proud, perhaps, than I have ever been. Today, the Quakers have become the first major Christian denomination in Britain to agree to carry out same-sex marriages.

As the decision was made at Quaker Yearly Meeting in York, people hugged each other, many in tears, with the broad smiles that served as the Quaker equivalent of loud cheers. One friend told me that she wanted to “jump up and down and squeal” with delight, but that the context was not really appropriate. We started by hugging close friends, moved on to hugging people we knew slightly and finished by hugging strangers.

I did not expect this. Arriving at York University nearly a week ago, a friend pointed out how nice the campus was, including a lake, trees and a large number of ducks. I cynically commented that it also included some long grass, into which the decision on same-sex relationships was likely to be kicked.

While there may be relatively few homophobes in the Religious Society of Friends (as Quakers are otherwise known), it seemed that there could well be others willing to postpone a decision for the sake of a superficial unity - 22 years after British Quakers formally began to consider the issue.

But by the time we came to the official decision-making session yesterday, several Friends testified that their views had changed during the week. We did not merely agree to carry out same-sex commitment ceremonies, we agreed to treat same-sex marriages in exactly the same way as any other marriage. This puts us on course for conflict with the law, which allows same-sex couples only the second-best option of a civil partnership and then compounds the discrimination by banning any religious elements in the ceremony.

As someone who worries that Quakers tend to forget their history, I was pleased that it played such a part in the considerations. We were reminded that George Fox, one of the first Quakers, said that he had married in obedience to God's leading. When he was told that marriage was for procreation and that he should not have married a woman past child-bearing age, he said he had not even considered the issue. It was this same approach that led one Quaker in this week's discussions to assert that “marriage is the Lord's work and we will do it whenever we are called to do it no matter what the law says”.

After the session, I half-jokingly encouraged a friend to phone up her girlfriend and propose. Things may not move so fast – the marriage chapter of Quaker Faith and Practice, our “book of Christian discipline”, has to be revised and the revision agreed by next year's Yearly Meeting. Homophobic groups are no doubt drafting condemnatory statements at this very moment. More sadly, a tiny number of Quakers may be writing letters of resignation.

The decision has been more courageous than I dared to hope. I should have had more trust in both God and Quakerism! It is good news for people of any faith or of none who have campaigned for the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. But in particular, I trust that it will inspire those working for inclusivity within other denominations.

This is because British Friends (to my surprise) have demonstrated that it is possible to go through an agonising process of discernment on issues of sexuality and come out with a strong commitment to equality, without forgetting the need for tenderness to those who disagree. We struggled through the decision with considerable pain on many sides. But despite the thunder that rumbled in the distance during yesterday's session, the sky above York showed no sign of falling on our heads when the clerk read out the final decision at twenty past eleven this morning.

It has taken 22 years, but today it feels worth it. Quakers are the first major denomination to make this decision, but I hope that the second, third, fourth and fifth will not be far behind. It is time for other churches and other faith groups to show the same courage that I was privileged to witness this week. Those who think such a thing unlikely should be reminded of the transformation that has taken place in a single week in York.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia.

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