Britain's Quakers have this morning agreed to carry out same-sex marriages on the same basis as marriages for opposite-sex couples. The decision came after an intense week of debate and reflection at the Quakers' Yearly Meeting in York.
Emotions ran high in the discussions and several people of various views were visibly in tears. Many participants hugged each other and expressed delight as the decision was reached.
People working for equality and inclusion within other churches and faith groups will be encouraged by the decision.
Quakers are now likely to face a difficult time with the law, which currently offers same-sex couples only civil partnerships, in which no religious element is allowed.
The statement agreed by the Religious Society of Friends, as Quakers are otherwise known, comes 22 years after they began formal consideration of the issue.
The Quakers agreed this morning that they would “treat same-sex committed relationships in the same way as opposite-sex marriages, reaffirming our central insight that marriage is the Lord's work and we are but witnesses”
They further declared that “the question of legal recognition by the state is secondary”.
Quaker same-sex marriages will now be “prepared, celebrated, witnessed, recorded and reported to the state in the same way as opposite-sex marriages”.
Only a few Friends expressed outright opposition to homosexuality during the discussions, although others argued that the word “marriage” could apply only to a relationship between a man and a woman. One participant accused the Meeting of considering “a radical experiment in social engineering” before walking out of the hall.
However, several Quakers said that their views had shifted during the week's discernment and many were keen to emphasise that both experience and theology backed up the case for same-sex marriages.
One Friend said passionately that “It's been considered for over 20 years. That's longer than I've been alive.” She urged Quakers to remember that they were “a Society that stands up for what it believes to be right”.
Another called on Quakers not to bow to the law's discrimination against same-sex couples. “Marriage is what God does,” he said, “It is not what state does. It is not what we do. It is not even what the couple does”.
He insisted 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”.
The Religious Society of Friends will now rewrite the marriage section of Quaker Faith and Practice, their “book of Christian discipline”, to reflect the change. Certain precise details remain to be worked out.
Symon Hill, associate director of the thinktank Ekklesia, who is himself a Quaker, welcomed the decision.
He said “I trust this decision will inspire people of all faiths and none who are working for the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people”.
He added that “As with other churches, this has not been an easy process for Quakers. I hope that others will have the courage to follow this lead and speak up for the radical inclusivity of Christ. As Christians, we are called to stand with those on the margins who are denied equality”.
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said that “The Quakers’ decision to open up marriage to same-sex couples on exactly the same basis as heterosexual couples, is an honourable, courageous, trail-blazing decision”.
He urged the government not to block recognition of same-sex marriages performed by the Quakers, suggesting that this would “effectively over-ride their religious authority and independence, and effectively shore up homophobic discrimination”.