Quakers Okay Full Marriage Equality
The modus operandi of many, if not most, religious faiths is to insist upon the unwavering completeness and consistency of the "truth" their doctrine imparts. If anything in the universe is expected to change, it is not the church’s teachings or views, but the views--and sometimes the very natures--of those who disagree with religious doctrine.
The Quakers, however, have taken a step in the other direction, announcing themselves to be prepared to amend their understanding of Scripture--and the church laws that define the practical applications of their faith in the mundane world--in a manner that allows for the full dignity and equality of gay and lesbian individuals and their families.
A July 31 meeting of Quakers in England resulted in the UK arm of that faith determining that full-fledged marriage equality should be bestowed upon gay and lesbian families.
The faith also called upon the British government to step up the currently legal "civil unions" status available to gay and lesbian families to full-fledged marriage equality.
Civil partnerships have been legal in England since 2004, and are designed to provide all the same legal rights and protections as marriage.
But, as the Quakers noted, civil partnerships do not include the ability of same-sex couples to be wed in religious ceremonies.
The Quakers want that to change, at least in their own faith, reported a July 30 article carried by the BBC News.
The article noted that the Quakers are among Britain’s most venerable faith traditions, and speculated that if the Quakers go forward with offering full-fledged marriage to gay and lesbian families, the faith could find itself at odds with the law.
The article also pointed out that the Quakers have set themselves apart from other churches through their calm acceptance that gays and lesbians are part of their faith community and wish for equal family recognition.
Stated the article, "the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said the Quakers had been more prepared than other groups to reinterpret the Bible in the light of contemporary life."
An example of the opposite reaction to the question of gay families and gay members of a given faith is the Anglican church, which has been brought to the brink of schism over the issue of gays among the ranks of its faithful.
In particular, some Anglicans are infuriated that the American branch of the church, the Episcopalians, elevated an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, to the position of bishop in 2003.
More recently, a California meeting of Episcopalians voted to lift the ban on further gay and lesbian officials in the American church.
Anti-gay Anglicans view the branches of the church that accept gays as equal members as "errant" and have demanded that the North American branches of the faith "repent."
British GLBT equality activist Peter Tatchell issued a July 31 statement on the Quakers’ vote, saying, "The vote by the Quakers to open up marriage to same-sex couples, on exactly the same basis as heterosexual couples, is an honorable, courageous, trail-blazing decision."
Tatchell, too, held up the Quakers’ decision to the actions and rhetoric displayed by other faith traditions.
"[The Quaker vote] exposes the homophobia of other faiths that refuse to recognize love and commitment between couples of the same sex, and it specifically exposes their denial of religious marriage to same-sex couples," Tatchell said.
Addressing the possibility of a conflict between the UK’s secular government and the Quakers’ faith-based decision, Tatchell foresaw issues of religious liberty arising in short order.
"This decision will create a major dilemma for the government," the equality activist said.
"Will it block recognition of lesbian and gay marriages performed by the Quakers?"
Predicted Tatchell, "If it refuses to recognize Quaker same-sex marriages, the government will provoke a confrontation with religious bodies.
"It will effectively over-ride their religious authority and independence, and shore up homophobic discrimination."
Added Tatchell, "It would send entirely the wrong signal if [Prime Minister] Gordon Brown’s government sided with homophobic, discriminatory religious leaders against marriage equality for same-sex couples."
Tatchell opined that the existing provisions for gay and lesbian families were not sufficient.
"Civil partnerships are not equal," he declared. "They are second best. They reinforce and extend discrimination.
"Just as same-sex couples are banned from civil marriage, opposite sex couples are banned from civil partnerships. Two wrongs don’t make a right," Tatchell continued.
"Both civil marriage and civil partnerships should be open to gay and straight couples, without discrimination," said Mr Tatchell.
Tatchell’s press release noted that the Quaker vote was to "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."
Moreover, the release said, "Quaker same-sex marriages will now be ’prepared, celebrated, witnessed, recorded and reported to the state in the same way as opposite-sex marriages.’"
The release also contained a quote from Symon Hill, the associate director of Ekklesia, a Christian group.
Hill, who is a Quaker, 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."
Hill pointed out 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," Hill went on.
"As Christians, we are called to stand with those on the margins who are denied equality."
The vote was also covered in the July 31 edition of UK newspaper The Times, which quoted Quakers in Britain’s Michael Hutchinson as saying, "We recognize that many homosexual people play a full part in the life of the Society of Friends.
"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. They miss the public recognition of this in a religious ceremony.
Added Hutchinson, "We hope our discussions this week will help us recognize, in love, the friend whose experience is not our own and will lead us forward in exploring what true equality means."
A more complete record of Hutchinson’s comments was published elsewhere in the same edition of The Times, in an article by the newspaper’s religious correspondent, Ruth Gledhill.
Gledhill quoted Hutchinson as remarking, "After years of painful and sometimes acrimonious debate in other churches about the place of gay people, the Quaker decision to move towards same-sex marriages was achieved with remarkable spiritual calmness.
"It was made without a vote," Hutchinson continued, "following the usual Quaker business method of mostly silent opening worship, and then spirit-led sharing of personal experience and discernment.
"In preparation for today’s meeting, smaller group sessions in meetings around the country and also earlier this week have considered many aspects--legal, experiential, linguistic, historical, psychological, anthropological, etc."
Noted Hutchinson, "One anthropologist highlighted the extreme diversity of understandings of marriage around the world.
"They include child marriage, marriage with a ghost, marriage between one man and several women, one woman and several men, a fifty-year old and a six-year-old."
Added Hutchinson, "Although the Judeo-Christian tradition has seen marriage as only between a man and a woman, Friends see marriage as a committed, loving, lifelong relationship--and the work of God.
"Most Quakers regard the Bible as spiritually inspired," Hutchinson clarified, "but nevertheless a human text to be reflected upon and understood in the light of modern knowledge."
The worldwide church does hold an array of opinions on the topic, Hutchinson acknowledged. "Friends heard some dissent and were reminded of the need for tenderness towards those Quakers not present who may find the decision difficult.
"Same-sex marriages in Quaker meetings are legal in Canada and Massachusetts, USA, though opposed by some Friends in East Africa particularly."
The former Times article reported that the church’s book of Quaker Faith and Practice would be amended to address the needs of monogender families and set out the appropriate text "so that same sex marriages can be prepared, celebrated, witnessed, recorded and reported to the state, as opposite sex marriages are."
Though some have worried that the religious practices of the Quakers would bring members of that faith into conflict with UK law, the Times reported that although the church would press for the government to adjust the law "so that same sex marriages notified in this way can be recognized as legally valid, without further process, in the same way as opposite sex marriages celebrated in our meetings," the church did not intend to put people in a bind between faith and the government.
The Quakers passed language reading, "We will not at this time require our registering officers to act contrary to the law, but understand that the law does not preclude them from playing a central role in the celebration and recording of same sex marriages."