This step is the culmination of a long process that has engaged our whole community. Towards a Quaker View of Sex, published in 1963, stated: “An act which expresses true affec-tion between two individuals and gives pleasure to them both does not seem to us to be sinful by reason alone of the fact that it is homosexual.”
Some 22 years later, we considered a proposal that it was time for us to treat equally same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. We were not ready then, but, when a similar proposal came back nearly three years ago, it started a process that led 1700 of us, gathered in York, to discover the certainty that this is God’s will for us at this time.
Quakers have a distinctive business method. We gather in silent worship to listen to each other and to God, who, we believe, indwells each one of us (and potentially every human being). In that gathered worship, we hope to discern what is right, what is God’s will. We submit ourselves to that greater power, which is both within and beyond us.
The clerk of the meeting has the task of putting into words, in the form of a minute, the outcome of this discernment process. The minute is reflected back to the meeting, and given its final form by further corporate discernment.
It was as the result of four sessions over four days that this year’s minute on committed relationships took shape. All these sessions were powerfully moving. In the last one, we found unity in a way that was unexpected and uplifting.
This recent process started when minutes requesting that we initiate change were received from Quaker meetings around the country by Meeting for Sufferings (the historically named representative body, which continues the business of our Yearly Meeting between its annual gatherings).
This set in motion a soundings exercise, which was entrusted to Quaker Life Central Committee, of which I was clerk. We encouraged every meeting in the country to consider the matter of committed relationships, and to respond.
An analysis of the 160 responses indicated that many were eager for us to move forward and make changes; that a minority felt the time was not yet right; and that a very few were unhappy about celebrating same-sex partnerships in their meetings.
What particularly interested me was evidence that simply meeting to consider the matter had moved some to change their view. I presented the findings to Meeting for Sufferings last year, confessing as I did so how far my own attitudes had moved on.
In my pre-Quaker years, I regarded homosexuality as unbiblical and sinful. It was through getting to know same-sex couples and experiencing that there was between them the potential for the same quality of self-giving love as I have seen and experienced in heterosexual marriage that I overcame my prejudice.
Experience is at the heart of theology for Quakers. For us, neither scripture nor the Church is the final authority. “You will say,” George Fox is reported as declaring in 1652, “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
We base our discernment on individual experience of the Truth, and we test it through the corporate process of meeting for worship for business. The subject of committed relationships was introduced at York by an older Friend, who spoke about his own conventional marriage and the different experiences of sexuality of his own young-adult children.
In the second session, we had powerful ministry from couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, relating their experience of committed relationship and its consequences. One same-sex couple had, with the support of their Quaker Meeting in Britain, travelled to Canada to be married in the care of a Meeting there, where the registration of same-sex marriages is supported by law.
At our final session, we received a minute from Junior Yearly Meeting, the meeting of 16-18-year-olds held alongside the adult gathering, which included the following: “to deny the spiritual aspect of marriage to committed couples, based upon their sexuality, is unjust. In the light of the Quaker testimony to equality, we feel that denying the right to marriage to consenting adult couples is hypocritical.” That was what we found to be right for us all.
Quakers in Britain have long been able legally to register opposite-sex marriages celebrated in our meetings. We appoint registering officers to guide the process both spiritually and legally. We understand that the law does not preclude them from playing a central part in the celebration and recording of same-sex marriages, and will not be asking them to break the law, but will now work towards the time when such marriages, notified in this way, can be recognised as legally valid.
Phil Lucas is a Quaker from East Lothian, who has been a Baptist minister, a head teacher, and manager of a Quaker meeting-house.