Saturday, 1 August 2009

'Gay' Marriage and the Quakers

As a Quaker, I struggle with sentences that begin ‘it says in the Bible’ – to me the Bible is a historical document, as are Shakespeare’s plays, and I read both with interest, but I cannot take seriously that any man, nor any book, is the ‘word of God’ – the bible is the word of man as those men interpreted God. I interpret God in my own way, and I simply don’t accept that anyone else has a greater right than I to dictate what I believe.

The basis of a Quaker marriage is a declaration of a life-long commitment in the eyes of God of a loving relationship between two people, those people present are merely witnesses to that commitment, not some form of state or religious ’sanction’ for the marriage. So it is little surprise that the Quakers should have been amongst the first to form the view that it is the value of that commitment between two people that counts rather than any stricture as to what, or whom, constitutes a marriage.

Children being the only means of replenishing the basic stock of society, quality control of those children has been the main reason for society to demand the role of quality controller. Religion, in all its forms, has held the post for thousands of years, with strictures on how, with whom, and when, children might safely be created with the best chance of growing up to be useful members of society.

So the argument that marriage is for the continuation of the species is a societal construct – the species would have continued in any case, but the quality control of the outcome would have suffered; nor could the cost of rearing the outcome have been reasonably fairly placed on the correct shoulders without the intervention of the priestly seal of approval. Children should without doubt be reared with both male and female committed role models, sadly, many are not, through death and divorce, but that does not prevent us from recognising a marriage between man and woman, nor is the inability to have children a bar to marriage.

Now that the quality control is achieved by means of abortion, and medical intervention undreamed of in previous centuries, and quantity control by artificial means, you have to wonder what is the actual point of marriage and why should the religious institutions, or the state, have so much say as to whom, when, and how.

What is the ‘point’ of marriage now?

It is surely the moment when a private relationship becomes public, when the support of society is sought to help cement that relationship, a celebration of that commitment.

Quakers were given the right to conduct marriages in England and Wales in 1753, but case law before that recognised the validity of Quaker marriages. Following the Civil Partnership Act of December 2005, same sex couples in England, Wales and Scotland, who share Quaker beliefs may opt for a blessing or commitment ceremony after entering a civil partnership. The Civil Partnership Act allows same sex partnerships to be registered as civil partnerships in law, but such registrations cannot take place in the context of religious worship.

Yesterday, after intense discussions at the AGM for the Quaker organisation, the Religious Society of Friends decided that :

“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 [...] take steps to put this leading into practice and to arrange [...] that same sex marriages can be prepared, celebrated, witnessed, recorded and reported to the state, as opposite sex marriages are.

We [will] [...] 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”

I have little doubt that by the time the main stream media wake up to this declaration, we will have headlines screaming ‘Quakers to marry gays’, and all the familiar knee jerk reactions and quotations from the bible condemning homosexuality. They will be missing the point.

Society has contrived through various means, medical and otherwise, to take away the role of marriage, and ‘parents’, in the production line of children.

What is left of marriage has nothing to confine it to a man and a woman. The Quakers, not being controlled by a ‘book of rules’, nor a man in a floor length party frock, are merely acknowledging that.

It’s a decision I applaud.

No comments: