Quakers seek liberty for gay couples

by
10 March 2010

Hosting civil partnerships is a matter of religious freedom, argues Michael Bartlet

Quakers sought a change in the law at our national Yearly Meeting (at which members consider both reli­gious and business questions) last July, so that same-sex marriages in Quaker Meetings could be celebrated, reported to the State, and recognised as legally valid, in the same way as opposite-sex marriages are currently celebrated.

The decision was the fruit of 20 years of prayerful refection and de­tailed consultation — the cul­mina-tion of a discussion that began still earlier, with the affirmation of loving gay relationships in Towards a Quaker View of Sex (1963).

We are now revising Quaker Faith and Practice, the Friends’ book of Christian discipline (www.quakerweb.org.ukqfb/), to follow our collec­tive conscience in celebrating life-long committed relationships of our members between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in the same way as we currently recog­nise the mar­riage of heterosexual couples.

We are now revising Quaker Faith and Practice, the Friends’ book of Christian discipline (www.quakerweb.org.ukqfb/), to follow our collec­tive conscience in celebrating life-long committed relationships of our members between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in the same way as we currently recog­nise the mar­riage of heterosexual couples.

Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Bill, which the House of Lords approved last week (News, 5 March), would go a long way towards giving legal substance to recognition of the equality of committed and faithful same-sex and heterosexual relationships for those denomina­tions that wish to do so.

The amendment would end the current prohibition on the use of reli­gious premises in the celebration of civil partnerships in England and Wales, and create an order-making power for registering religious pre­mises for the conduct of such partner­ships. A clause clarifying that it would not compel any religious organisa­tions to conduct civil part­ner­ships helped win support for a free vote in the Lords. It was passed late on Tuesday of last week by 95 to 21 votes.

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For Quakers, Liberal Judaism, and Unitarians, the legislation affirms an understanding of the equality of com­mitted same-sex relationships. For some, such as Lady Butler-Sloss, civil partnerships are “equal to but different from marriage”.

For many supporters, the amend­ment raised issues of religious liberty as much as equality. Why should three small denominations be denied the right to follow the conscience of their memberships, when the Estab­lished Church is permitted to do so?

Opponents of the amendment raised the prospect of a slippery slope to churches’ being compelled to hold civil-partnership ceremonies, and a blurring of the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage, with the implication of undermining family life. The Bishop of Bradford, Lord Waddington, and Lord Tebbit all spoke forcefully against legislative change. Lord Tebbit expressed fears that those wanting civil partnerships could “force themselves” upon churches.

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, who spoke at the committee stage of the Bill, was concerned that “it will open, not the Church of England but individual clergy to charges of discrimination if they solemnise marriages . . . but re­fuse to host civil partnership sign­ings in their churches.”

The amendment, however, is per­missive, not prescriptive: it per­mits, but does not require; it allows, but does not compel. In the light of the particular language in primary legislation that “nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partner­ships if they do not wish to do so,” arguments suggesting compul­sion are insubstantial, and anxieties lack any legal foundation.

For many years, divorced couples were not allowed to marry in C of E churches in England and Wales, al­though there was no legal impedi­ment against their doing so. Nothing compelled churches opposing the marriage of divorcees to undermine their internal discipline by con­ducting marriages.

Perhaps the real argument against the amendment is that, by removing the current prohibition in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, it would open further debate in synods and con­gregations over whether churches should host civil partnerships.

Far from undermining family life, the religious recognition of civil part­nerships would affirm the integrity of permanent, loving, and faithful com­mitted relationships that are at the heart of marriage. For Lord Wallace of Tankerness, an Elder in the Church of Scotland, it was a “people-centred amendment”.

Lady Neuberger, who has of­ficiated at blessings conducted after civil partnerships, referred to the sig­nificance of such ceremonies for the parents of those involved. She spoke of the amendment as being “about the personal happiness of a lot of people”.

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The amendment would enable people who want to celebrate a life­long commitment to do so in the presence of their worshipping com­munity and friends.

the principle of religious liberty united widespread support from people with different understandings of the nature of civil partnerships. Those voting for the amendment in the House of Lords included the Bishop of Newcastle, three Govern­ment ministers, and a former Con­servative Party chairman, Norman Fowler. The words of the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, resonated with the feel­ing of the House when he argued: “Religious freedom is indivisible.”

In a plural society, perhaps what mature religious leadership requires today is less the buttressing by law of one particular understanding of theo­logy than the prayerful protec­tion of the freedom of religion, con­science, and belief for us all.

Michael Bartlet is Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for the Religious So­ciety of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, and a member of Westminster Quaker Meeting.

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