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From The Horse’s Mouth

Below the fold is the text of minute 25 of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, the minute which dealt with the Quakers’ recent decision to start celebrating same-sex marriages.

I have learned a little more about the history of this decision. Ostensibly it goes back 22 years, to when the subject was first brought up for discussion at Meeting for Sufferings (etymology below) however it actually traces its roots right back to the founding of the Quakers over 350 years ago. For the first 100 years of our existence, Quaker marriages were not recognised by the British state, and children born to Quaker parents were bastards in the eyes of the law. Early Quakers nevertheless attempted to register their marriages with the authorities – and for a century were ignored. The same tactics will be employed again here; with support for marriage equality at over 60% and growing, I doubt the government will try anything stupid like a prosecution.

Quakers have a long history of taking up (non-violent) arms in difficult and often prolonged civil rights struggles, including those against the slave trade and for prison reform – a struggle that continues still, even after over 200 years. One of the reasons behind Quakers’ willingness to involve themselves in typically long, tough and unglamorous campaigns is our early history. Quakerism was founded at a time of almost continual religious warfare, mostly between the Catholic and Anglican churches with the Dissenters caught in the crossfire. Perhaps inevitably, many early Quakers were imprisoned, beaten, deported or even executed for their faith; much of the writings of George Fox, the Quakers’ founder, were written in prison. Meeting for Sufferings, the British Quaker executive committee, was originally formed to deal with injustices committed against Quaker Londoners by the state.

There was a short editorial in Saturday’s Guardian which you may wish to read.

Minute 25, Britain Yearly Meeting 31 July 2009

Further to minute 17, a session was held on Tuesday afternoon at which speakers shared personal experiences of the celebration and recognition of their committed relationships. These Friends had felt upheld by their meetings in these relationships but regretted that whereas there was a clear, visible path to celebration and recognition for opposite sex couples, the options available for couples of the same sex were not clear and could vary widely between meetings. Friends who feel theirs to be an ordinary and private rather than an exotic and public relationship have had to be visible pioneers to get their relationship acknowledged and recorded.

This open sharing of personal experience has moved us  and added to our clear sense that, 22 years after the prospect was first raised at Meeting for Sufferings we are being led 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. The question of legal recognition by the state is secondary.

We therefore ask Meeting for Sufferings to take steps to put this leading into practice and to arrange for a draft revision of the relevant sections of Quaker faith and practice, so that same sex marriages can be prepared, celebrated, witnessed, recorded and reported to the state, as opposite sex marriages are. We also ask Meeting for Sufferings to engage with our governments to seek a change in the relevant laws so that same sex marriages notified in this way can be recognised as legally valid, without further process, in the same way as opposite sex marriages celebrated in our meetings. 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.

We have heard dissenting voices during the threshing process which has led to us this decision, and we have been reminded of the need for tenderness to those who are not with us who will find this change difficult. We also need to remember, including in our revision of Quaker faith and practice, those Friends who live singly, whether or not by choice.

We will need to explain our decision to other Christian bodies, other faith communities, and, indeed to other Yearly Meetings, and pray for a continuing loving dialogue, even with those who might disagree strongly with what we affirm as our discernment of God’s will for us at this time.

Following the decision, Martin Ward, clerk of Quakers Yearly Meeting said: “This minute is the result of a long period of consultation and what we call “threshing” in our local meetings, culminating in two gathered sessions of our Yearly Meeting. At these sessions, according to practice, we heard ministry arising out of silent worship which led us to discern the will of God for the Religious Society and record it in this minute.”

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