Around 1,600 British Quakers will gather in York tomorrow for Yearly Meeting Gathering, their week-long annual conference.
The event is likely to be dominated by a decision on whether to carry out same-sex commitment ceremonies on the same basis as heterosexual weddings.
The change is thought to have the support of a majority of British Quakers, but it is vigorously opposed by a vocal number of people who insist that marriage can only involve individuals of opposite sexes. Rather than voting, Quakers will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead them into unity.
A range of other issues will be considered at the Yearly Meeting, which will take place at York University from 25th July until 1st August. It is the formal decision-making body of the Religious Society of Friends, as the Quakers are otherwise known.
“We recognise that many homosexual people play a full part in the life of the Society of Friends” said Michael Hutchinson, Assistant Recording Clerk of the Society.
“Many of our meetings have told us that there are homosexual couples who consider themselves to be married and believe this is as much a testimony of divine grace as a heterosexual marriage” he added.
Around twenty Quaker Meetings in Britain have held ceremonies for same-sex commitments over the last twelve years. The Yearly Meeting will now have the chance to put this on a clear national footing by revising Quaker Faith and Practice, described as “the book of Christian discipline” of Friends in Britain.
This could also involve the politically challenging move of requesting legal authority for Quaker registering officers to register same sex partnerships in the same way as marriages.
Although Quakers are known for their testimony to equality, the issue is proving a controversial one within the Society.
Even amongst supporters of the proposed change, some see it as an end in itself, while for others it is a first step towards other measures. Some ask why personal relationships should be registered by the state at all.
Hutchinson emphasised the importance of Quakers listening to each other during the week. “We hope our discussions this week will help us recognise, in love, the Friend whose experience is not our own,” he explained, “And will lead us forward in exploring what true equality means.”
This is not the first time that the Society of Friends have faced controversy over sexuality and relationships. Early Quakers in the seventeenth century were accused of invalid marriages, because there is no minister at a Quaker wedding. The couple are considered to be married by God with all those present acting as witnesses.
The publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963 caused shock outside the Society and some discomfort within it over its call for acceptance of loving same-sex partnerships. In 2006, the Quaker writer Anna Sharman provoked controversy with her book Open Fidelity, which suggested that relationships do not need to be exclusive or monogamous in order to be ethical, honest and loving.